Spring Questions: Safety

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's safeties heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the eighth of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

1. HOW FAR HAVE THEY COME?
Barring a full recovery by sophomore Drue Tranquill (see below), Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate will rank as Notre Dame's starting safeties entering August training camp. In previous springs, the pair represented the promise of youth and appeared to be complementary playmakers -- one thumper (Shumate) coupled with the ultra-athletic Redfield, a true free safety and roamer of the last line of the Irish defense.

But a mid-November benching of the tandem (in favor of a rookie linebacker and one-armed man, no less) by head coach Brian Kelly suggested otherwise, as did the reality that the Music City Bowl win over LSU included not one, but two untouched full-field touchdown catches/runs by Tiger players.

Miscommunication was again present, though the two were a physical tandem that combined to make plays throughout the contest. (Shumate with a key pass breakup; Redfield with a game-high 14 tackles.) They appeared fully engaged, but results were mixed, maddening.

Their improvement in terms of bringing the film room to the field, and thereafter helping coordinate the on field adjustments necessary in Brian VanGorder's defense will be crucial, not only as a spring storyline, but through the early stages of fall ball.

2. WHO'S MOVING IN?
In terms of alleviating wear and tear on the starters during spring ball, it might not be necessary that Notre Dame move a scholarship athlete to the safety position, not if 2014 walk-ons Eamon McOsker, Tyler Price, and Drew Recker return to the fray as expected.

(Fellow walk-on Ernie Soto was a senior last season, he could potentially lend a hand for spring ball prior to graduation.)

Incoming California graduate transfer Avery Sebastian walks into a two-deep role this summer/August. Sebastian will bring a physical presence and complement the trio of Redfield, Shumate and Tranquill to give the Irish promise (at worst) and it is to be hoped, the highest level of execution and production by the safety position at the program since the title season of 2012.

(For more on Sebastian, click here.)

Safety Nicky Baratti continues to rehab and fight his way back after a third shoulder surgery (Sept. 2014). Though likely out of contact for the third straight spring session, Baratti will be afforded a shot at recovery between now and early August -- the latter will likely determine his senior season role.

Fifth-year nickel Matthias Farley will certainly cross-train as he was forced to do late last season, but Farley was a playmaker last season as the team's nickel back -- it's clearly his best role for the defense. With the quartet above in good health in August, Farley's services would only be needed in an emergency role.

Freshmen Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta join the fray this summer/fall.

3. HOW'S DRUE TRANQUILL?
According to his head coach, far ahead of schedule. Remarkably so.

"He's so far ahead right now, I think he's at nine weeks (recovery) and he's running," said Kelly. "I think he (lifted) 315 pounds on his back yesterday, full squatting at two-and-a-half months. So that's crazy. So he's way ahead of schedule. He'll be doing some drill work in the spring."

Regardless, it's reasonable to assume that the November 2015 version of Drue Tranquill will be a better collegiate safety than the early September edition, one just 10 months removed from ACL surgery.

Tranquill turned heads last September and October as a dime package linebacker -- a force for Notre Dame's trusted third-down package. By necessity he moved to safety for a mid-November meeting with Northwestern and looked more than a step slow in the new role.

One week later he played much of a contest against Louisville through a torn ACL. "We didn't even think Drue had a torn ACL," said Kelly. "We thought he pinched the fat pad on his knee. Played the second half (vs. the Cardinals) on it. That's how strong he is, hamstring and quad area is so strong that he passed his ACL test.

"Then he comes in on Sunday and he's swollen, we're like, 'We need an MRI.' We get an MRI he has a (torn) ACL."

Tranquill will be an impact player at Notre Dame sooner rather than later. But will it be as a safety?

Said Kelly of Tranquill last November 6, one week prior to his first start at safety: "We think that as he continues to develop that he could be a linebacker, but right now he’s a box safety. He’s a guy we feel like plays better closer to the ball than being a half (field) safety with him. Where that ends up will be determined by situational substitution. He could possibly even morph into that kind of nickel position, right now we didn’t want to put him at two or three different positions other than the one we trained him at for option.

"I think after the season we’ll kind of figure out the position that we want him at and really train him there. He’s been an unsung hero for us."

At least for 2015, the depth chart suggests safety out of necessity.

4. WHY THE DISCONNECT?
The overall efforts of Notre Dame's safety unit in 2013 was incongruent with what the program had enjoyed in three previous seasons under Kelly. Whether coached by Chuck Martin (2010-11) or Bob Elliott (2012), the unit shined despite being woefully short-handed in terms of developed, available talent.

In 2013, blessed with ample able bodies, the group struggled mightily. Suspensions, poor tackling, lack of plays made on the ball in the air -- the only constant was disappointment.

In 2014, it got worse. When offenses with a pulse occupied the opposite sidelines (North Carolina, Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville, USC, and LSU), Notre Dame's back line failed to deliver.

Why?

Excuses and/or reasonings to date have included a lack of experience, a lack of continuity, poor communication, and a difficult system to grasp.

Perhaps the latter should have been tweaked to accommodate the pupils. Perhaps it will be this season. Or perhaps the purported "move" of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder from inside linebackers coach to safeties coach will prove invaluable.

Regardless, a third consecutive season of struggle among the team's last line of defense would be unacceptable.



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