Spring Questions: Cornerback

A pre-spring quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's cornerbacks, a unit expected to add its best overall player to the mix for summer camp 2015.

Below is the ninth 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. DEVIN BUTLER VS. NICK WATKINS: WHO'LL EMERGE AFTER 15?
February and August 2014 seemed to favor the incoming freshman Watkins, a player lauded for man-to-man coverage ability that fit perfectly with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's new scheme. The harsh reality of college football -- and the need for gained weight and strength by the youngster -- instead kept Watkins from any scrimmage action last fall. He played 11 games on special teams, largely in kickoff coverage, though without a tackle.

One year prior, Butler likewise broke through the playing time barrier with early special teams action (including the staff's ST Player of the Week Award against Oklahoma). Unlike Watkins, the game-ready Butler earned a rookie role in the team's dime defense by mid-season, a spot he held through season's end.

After holding down a backup role (an interception during a still-competitive Purdue game the highlight) Butler was hit with trial-by-fire in November, thrust into a starting role due to injury. He struggled.

Now you're up to date. And now the pair is expected to compete opposite standout junior Cole Luke this spring for a starting role exiting the session -- one likely to be ceded to KeiVarae Russell upon his expected return in August.

Regardless, the Irish defense should enter fall camp 2015 with a quality two-deep at cornerback -- perhaps the best (starters) and most promising (reserves, including a trio of incoming freshmen) of the Kelly era to date.

2. WILL LUKE CONTINUE HIS ASCENT?
Two positives came from Russell's suspension for his role in academic misconduct last fall.

1. Russell is likely to join the team for 2015 rather than toil in an NFL training camp this summer.
2. Cole Luke developed into a standout cornerback.

Regarding the latter, I'd argue Luke 2014 was better than Russell 2013, disparate defensive schemes notwithstanding. Nevertheless, Luke's next step is his most important, and his fall from grace at USC on Thanksgiving Weekend gives him plenty of mental ammunition to attack his weakness and improve upon his myriad strengths in the off-season.

3. WILL MATTHIAS FARLEY'S ROLE CHANGE? EXPAND?
Expected back as a fifth-year senior (and visible in a vine video distributed by the University this winter), Farley was the clear-cut winner of the 2014 squad's comeback player of the year award -- if there were such a thing.

His efforts close to scrimmage were a godsend for the nickel and dime defensive packages, and while he's likely to begin August in that role, it would also aid the defense if Farley -- markedly better in attack mode than downfield coverage -- were to receive aid from a true cornerback, at least in 3rd-and-long situations.

Could that be Watkins? Incoming freshman Shaun Crawford as indicated by the coaching staff prior to Signing Day? Could Russell shift into that role in obvious passing situations?

Regardless, Farley's versatility affords him the chance to make an imprint on the squad at nickel, backup safety, and throughout the speciality units. Said former assistant coach Bob Elliott of Farley, "When coach VanGorder came here he made it clear that he wanted to play a lot of snaps with the nickel in the game. In his mind, the qualifications for the nickel are somebody that is smart and quick. That is Matthias Farley to a tee.

"We do so many things with the nickel. When we played it in the past it was relatively basic, with a lot of man-to-man stuff with a couple of zones. But we are doing a lot of stuff with our nickel so our guy has to be a special guy and Matthias has a wonderful learning ability and has played all over the field so he was a natural guy for the position."

4. WHO'S THE NEW GUY?
New to the staff, new to big-time college football coaching and recruitment, but not new to the University or football program. That's Todd Lyght, the most decorated (and likely best) cornerback at Notre Dame since Luther Bradley dominated the mid-1970s in South Bend.

While Lyght's signing is viewed as a potential home run hire, it's due in part to the fact that he ranks as an all-time great Notre Dame player, a Super Bowl champion, and an NFL veteran of more than a decade. His credibility as a player cannot be questioned.

But he replaces a five-year Irish assistant in Kerry Cooks that was viewed as a rising star in the coaching ranks following the 2012 season and his remarkable work with a first-time starter (Bennett Jackson) and true freshman (KeiVarae Russell). It's illogical (not impossible, but illogical) to assume the program "traded up" in the Lyght for Cooks swap, regardless of Lyght's prior excellence between the lines.

Considering his reputation, his pupils will doubtless be at full attention -- and if they're not, I have a few dozen Irish highlight clips from 1987-90 to share -- but his first major test outside the lines awaits.



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