#8 -- SafetiesFifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth, senior Eilar Hardy, juniors Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti, sophomore Max Redfield. Hardy and Baratti both have an extra season of eligibility remaining (Hardy can apply for 2015, Baratti for 2016).
Standout: Max RedfieldWe think.
Said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Redfield, "He has crazy, crazy, crazy ability…"
That should buoy the spirits of Irish fans, because Notre Dame's last line of defense was so bad last season it's crazy, coming up short in coverage and/or as open-field tacklers at Michigan, against Oklahoma and Arizona State, at Pittsburgh, and at Stanford (four of the five ended in defeat). Redfield's ascent from freshman special teams competitor to no-doubt starter gives the back line hope, as does a new scheme that should allow his preternatural athleticism to shine.
Next In Line: Austin CollinsworthA few facts about the message board lighting rod: He led the team in interceptions. He finished third on the squad in quarterback hurries. (Seriously.) He started more games, 11, than six Irish defenders, all but two of whom have graduated and he was the team's defensive MVP against Stanford, recording 11 stops including one for loss and a game-changing first-half interception.
Not bad for a player most fans yearn to replace.
But the reality is, the coaching staff isn't looking to do so, in fact, they know they can't. Collinsworth picked up new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme from the outset -- he'll quarterback the back end for 13 games this season, mostly as a starter, at worst, as a rotation starter should one of the "more talented" trio of challengers progress.
Collinsworth will be solid most of the time, make plays some of the time, and -- to the frustration of many -- give some up even when he's in position to negate. It's the nature of the game when you're asked to play in space against the nation's best and you're a quality college football player, not a future pro.
Additional DepthAt this point last season, Notre Dame's safety unit went a full eight deep (and it was nine-deep entering spring 2013 prior to C.J. Prosise's move to slot receiver). But John Turner is now an outside linebacker, Matthias Farley a cornerback/nickel defender and Chris Badger is a BYU Cougar.
Thus, the current starting duo highlighted above is backed by a trio of upperclassmen, each capable or earning a starting spot for a major program -- each though has obstacles to overcome for 2014 and beyond.
Elijah Shumate: Concluded the spring as Collinsworth's backup at strong safety and he's likely to end August camp as such. If Shumate shines in run support from the outset he'll spell Collinsworth throughout September, keeping the pair in good health for the grueling final two months.
Eilar Hardy: At present the backup free safety to Redfield but Hardy, suspended twice last season (Purdue, Stanford) will receive a challenge from Nicky Baratti in camp. Hardy earned his first career start last fall against Navy and was set for another at Stanford prior to his second suspension (Shumate was also suspended for the 27-20 loss in Palo Alto). His versatility could prove invaluable in occasional relief of Redfield and potentially in the defense's myriad sub packages. Hardy has a 5th-year option for 2015 but will have to earn it.
Nicky Baratti: The team's swing safety (he can play both strong and free), Baratti will tackle 2014 with a shoulder harness, much like the one worn by graduated Irish cornerback Bennett Jackson during his standout 2012 season. The injury to his right shoulder occurred in the 2014 Blue Gold game -- Baratti missed 2013 following two surgeries on his left shoulder.
He'll begin August behind the pack -- a goal for the season would be to pull even entering November when attrition will inevitably take out a member of the listed two-deep.
X-Factor -- Shumate: A true thumper, Shumate was hamstrung in the former defense by the myriad responsibilities required of the safety position. Ready for the bad news? It's not any easier for the safeties in VanGorder's defense. Taking the film room to the practice field to game day is the chief challenge at hand for an athlete that seems capable of moving to the SLB position and challenging for a role. (That would, however, leave the Irish secondary short on safety help, barring a move back by current cornerback and 19-game safety starter, Matthias Farley.)
Camp QuestionsWill Redfield continue his ascent? Can he become one of the defense's top 3-4 players entering the opener? Can Shumate force his way onto the field? Will Baratti make up ground lost after missing the bulk of the last 20 months of full contact? Can Hardy push Redfield for playing time? Will Collinsworth exit camp as an indispensable player? Which member(s) from this quintet will do double duty on the Irish special teams -- units in dire need of aid. (Collinsworth was the team's 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year.) Could Farley move back to safety and could Shumate challenge at SLB?
Best-Case ScenarioRedfield emerges as one of the nation's best relative rookies while Collinsworth helps limit big plays against the Irish secondary…Collinsworth continues to shine as a blitzer in third-down situations as he showed early last season…Shumate proves too good to keep off the field and the Irish have a de facto third "starting" safety…Baratti makes his way back to 100 percent -- mentally and physically -- in time for the stretch run…Hardy progresses and plays a weekly role as it appeared he would last season when he earned quality time in October…Farley starts a game at safety.
Out on a LimbShumate starts six games at multiple positions including linebacker…Collinsworth excels in September but the Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State stretch to begin October takes its toll…Redfield proves far better late than early, but Notre Dame's comparatively easy September doesn't ding the secondary badly…Baratti is the fifth man but becomes an invaluable No. 3 safety, the "swing safety" for 2015 and earns a fifth season in 2016…Hardy plays more in October than in November as Redfield's production catches up to his media projection as a breakout player.
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