What We Know...Junior Keivarae Russell is primed for a strong season.
He believes it, his coaches believe it, and the Irish receiving corps believes it. (And other than possibly being accused of getting away with a lot of pushing and grabbing, I believe it from watching him perform this spring.)
Where Russell falls between "strong" and "standout" will go a long way toward determining the defense's production and effectiveness next fall.
-- We know Cole Luke ended the spring as the default second starter. Luke impressed but it's relevant to note that he'd have been challenged by classmate Devin Butler had the latter not been shelved by shoulder surgery. Luke likewise will receive top level competition from expected fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs, who, if game film is your guide, enters the program as at least the defense's fourth-best player.
-- We know the staff is thrilled with the progress of converted safety Matthias Farley at nickel…
Luke thrived as part of the Irish dime defense last fall
What we think we know...That including Riggs, this is the deepest cornerback group of the Kelly era. But proof and production, rather than potential and promise is essential for a unit that will be asked to make big plays in 2014, not just avoid them.
-- That Butler missed valuable time this spring in his quest to start next fall, but he'll at minimum be involved heavily in the defensive sub packages…
-- That Farley will struggle to hold off Riggs as the defense's nickel over the course of the season. Farley's main advantage is his early assimilation as with Riggs not on hand for the spring, Farley assumed, then thrived in the crucial nickel role.
If Riggs starts on the perimeter, could he also win the nickel role, allowing Luke to then rotate outside in passing situations?
-- Russell's hope-filled ascent to greatness is rooted in A.) progress he made from the beginning of 2013 to its conclusion, but also, B.) theoretical.
His expected improvement is a big part of the 2014 scheme, one that relies on aggressive, sticky coverage from its cornerbacks.
-- Brown and Atkinson will be challenged by incoming freshman Nick Watkins, though if Russell, Riggs, Luke, Butler, and Farley stay healthy, Watkins would be a luxury item at the position and could see a season of eligibility preserved. (Unless he proves his wares on special teams and its myriad units that could use an infusion of speed and aggression.)
Lingering questions...-- Can Russell approach his or the staff's expectations and play at an All-America level?
-- Is Riggs, a player forced to safety by younger talent in Gainesville, as advertised as a nickel/cornerback?
-- Will Luke or Butler cement two deep roles? Or will Watkins, who according to secondary coach Kerry Cooks excels in press man coverage, force his way onto the field?
-- Can the athletic Farley complete the transition to nickel and hold off myriad challengers?
Spring Standout -- KeiVarae RussellBut Farley's acceptance of, and thereafter acclimation to the challenging nickel position provided an unexpected boost to the unit. Among the quartet of Farley, Riggs, Luke, and Butler, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has intriguing options from which to choose as nickel and dime defenders in his myriad sub packages.
Farley's additional advantage over his competitors is a safety's frame when asked to support the run vs. read-option attacks, but he'll have to improve as a tackler after struggling in that regard last season.
The staff has repeatedly offered that Farley is a strong tackler, an incongruent notion with 2013 game film and another indication Farley could have been playing through injury last fall.
Step Back -- Devin ButlerAs with most listed in this category during our spring wrap-up series, Butler's perceived step back was due to injury (shoulder surgery).
Butler concluded the 2013 season on relatively even ground with his classmate Luke in the cornerback pecking order. That's likely changed with the former out of contact during the spring, but Butler forced his way into the defensive scheme near mid-season last fall and the Irish dime defense (six defensive backs) was better for it.
In good health, he'll be back in the mix and play a major role next fall.