To the surprise of most, 2012 Irish sophomore Matthias Farley evolved from former scout team slot receiver to the status of "season saver" -- an invaluable backup safety turned 11-game starter for the national runner-up Irish.
To the surprise of most again, Farley floundered in his encore junior season of 2013. A hidden shoulder injury and a mis-cast role (by the admittance of his coaching staff) led to the only sub par season of Farley's career.
Last fall, placed in the challenging role of the team's nickel defender, Farley flourished, making game-changing plays in both September (Michigan and Syracuse) as the Irish defense shined, and later in November (Arizona State, Northwestern) as the defense fell from grace.
Those standout performances helped cement the soon-to-be 5th-year senior as Notre Dame's no-doubt starter at nickel this spring and entering August camp.
Thereafter, help and competition should arrive.
"*Younger players that will be here in the fall -- we have a number of in-and-out corners (from the class of 2015)," said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of Farley's future challengers. "We'll find one of them and see which one suits the position the best."
(*Of note, head coach Brian Kelly and the Irish defensive staff purportedly targeted Lakewood (OH) St. Edward product Shaun Crawford to compete at the position from the outset.)
BACK IN THE SWING THIS SPRING
With the 2015 spring edition Irish not yet heavily involved in their sub packages, Farley has spent the bulk of his time working as a second-string safety alongside former safety (2013) turned-linebacker (2014) turned safety (2015) John Turner.
With Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate projected as starters, and with a recovering Drue Tranquill (torn ACL) and incoming 5th-year transfer Avery Sebastian set to challenge that pair in August, it's clear the team-first Farley is training at safety to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
It was a scenario that presented last fall when injured defensive backs fell by the wayside and the staff doesn't plan to be caught off guard again in 2015.
"Matthias is a reliable, dependable player," said VanGorder. "We've moved him to safety and started teaching him some safety. He was solely our nickel (in 2014), then at the end of the year, with injuries, we got him back there again.
"He's a little rusty. We have to fine-tune him this spring, get him some more reps at safety, but again, he'll keep playing nickel for us."
He'll keep playing it because he proved he could handle the role, just as former defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks projected. The staff's current head man in the secondary, Todd Lyght, explains why Farley was so quick to take the the defense's most challenging position.
"The nickel back position is really, really important with all the 11 personnel that you see in college football today," said Lyght. "He does a great job of understanding the 2-3 exchanges which is very difficult for young players. When offenses like to move guys around, you lose leverage off the 2-3 exchange and I think he does a good job of communicating with the inside linebackers on how they're going to play those 2-3 exchanges. I think he's going to be a really big part of what we're going to do this year."
Our post-game film reviews from 2014 credited Farley with top 10 overall player performances (the entire team included, not just the defense) in wins over Rice, Michigan, and Syracuse, plus late-season losses to Arizona State and Northwestern.
He was the no-doubt defensive MVP in the "Debacle in the Desert" against the Sun Devils and arguably the same against Michigan, a contest that included myriad heroes among VanGorder's group.
"It's a mixture of experience and confidence," said Lyght of Farley's acumen at the position. "When he gets out there, he understands the concepts of the defense. He knows where his help is. He understands spacing. Sometimes when you're playing a lot of zone defense, when you have young defenders out there, you see them standing next to each other and you realize they don't have a clue of what the spacing is. He does a great job of understanding and communicating defensive concepts and spacing."
VanGorder likewise lauded Farley's 2014 efforts, offering that a knack for big plays was appreciated if hard to explain. "He's tough enough. The nickel has to play the run game. You have to be smart in that position. There's a lot to that position and he's a bright player. The main two traits that he gives us that were a little more obvious than the others: he can play the run game and he's smart.
"He had four interceptions and came up with some big plays. The Northwestern game they're down ready to score (Farley intercepted in the end zone)…he's got a knack for that."
THE FARLEY FILES
Less than a calendar year after being left-for-dead by Irish fan message boards (and media), Farley rebounded to produce his best season to date -- at his third different position -- in a Notre Dame uniform.
-- Top 10 Outings: Rice, Michigan, Syracuse, Arizona State, Northwestern
-- Honorable Mentions: Navy
-- Made Crucial Plays: Stanford
-- TFL (6.5) + Stuffs (9): (Stuffs are tackles-for-loss made after gains of 0, 1, or 2 yards). Farley's combined total of 15.5 was good for seventh on the team and first among defensive backs.
-- INT + PD (9): 4 INT and 5 PD, respectively. The interceptions total tied for the team lead while the combined total ranked No. 2 behind Cole Luke's 19.