Never bereft of talent, the Kelly-era safeties have offered disparate results over the last five seasons: an initial three in which they shined followed by a pair in which they contributed greatly in crucial, close-margin defeats.
The Elite: Harrison Smith – Dubbed “Boy Wonder” by former safeties coach Chuck Martin, Smith excelled as a senior for Kelly’s first Irish squad in 2010, picking off seven passes and earning post-season captaincy heading into his fifth year, 2011.
His two season stat line includes 183 tackles, 24 passes defended, the aforementioned seven interceptions, and both a fumble forced and recovered.
A first-round selection of the Minnesota Vikings in the 2012 NFL Draft, Smith played his entire graduate season of ’11 with a sports hernia injury, one for which he did not receive surgery until after his rookie season.
Standout/Difference Maker: Zeke Motta – Would have concluded his four-season career as a contributor – including three seasons as a starter – as a nondescript defender of the Kelly era.
Then came 2012, a run to 12-0, and a defensive secondary that yielded just nine regular season passing touchdowns en route to a No. 1 ranking. Of note, only one of those passes exceeded 15 yards through the air due in large part to Motta’s ability to quarterback a secondary that included three rookie starters.
Motta’s improvement between the conclusion of 2011 and the end of his Irish career was staggering, and the back line of defense in South Bend hasn’t been the same since he left.
Quality Starter: Jamoris Slaughter – Destined for at least one category higher in terms of his overall ranking if not for injuries, Slaughter played with reckless abandon and it showed in the unfortunate category of Games Missed (15) over his three seasons with Kelly & Co. at the program.
He remains the most violent hitter of the group but never reached his full potential in a defense that ultimately would have benefitted greatly from his consistent presence.
Slaughter was outstanding as the team’s nickel in 2011 as well.
Aided the Cause: Austin Collinsworth, Matthias Farley, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield – Redfield and Shumate will pen their penultimate and final chapters in Irish lore this fall while Farley has found new life as a nickel defender entering his fifth year.
Farley’s two seasons as a starting safety offered a mixed bag: key component and season-saver in an emergency role (subbing for the aforementioned Slaughter) as a defensive rookie in 2012, then injury-ridden target of opposing offenses in 2013.
Farley bounced back last fall to solidify his place as the nickel defender making big plays for the blue and gold in games against Michigan, Syracuse, Stanford, Arizona State, Northwestern, and Louisville.
-- Dynamite on special teams in both 2010 and 2011, Collinsworth battled injuries in 2012 (season-ending shoulder surgery) and again as a team captain last fall. He led the team in interceptions (3) as a senior in 2013, though, he, like Farley, was better in a role attacking scrimmage than as a back line defender.
Couldn’t/Has Yet To Carve A Niche: Dan McCarthy, Chris Badger, Eilar Hardy, Nicky Baratti, John Turner – McCarthy’s career was derailed by injuries (neck, knee, shoulder) while Baratti’s current status suggests the same fate is likely (four shoulder injuries; three surgeries).
-- After two seasons of rehab and recovery from a torn ACL suffered in his first collegiate training camp (2011), Hardy was suspended three times: on two separate occasions for one game in 2013, then for the bulk of 2014 as part of the oft-reference academic dishonesty investigation.
A May 2014 Notre Dame graduate, he’ll play his final season of college ball at Bowling Green this fall.
-- Turner is a three-season special teams contributor but is unlikely to contribute from scrimmage this season.
-- Badger transferred to Brigham Young prior to the 2013 season after a two-year mission to Ecuador.
On Deck for 2015: Avery Sebastian, Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate – A December 2014 graduate, Sebastian will join the Irish this summer after a career at California in which he battled injuries over his junior and senior seasons. Sebastian recorded 96 career tackles including two for lost yardage with three passes defended, plus two interceptions and one forced fumble for the Bears over 33 games.
-- Redfield and Shumate are regarded among the most improved players at the program heading into 2015 – if that doesn’t prove true, Notre Dame will be bowling in late December for the fifth time in six seasons.
Finding a Foothold this Fall? Drue Tranquill – Is he a box safety? Is he an outside linebacker? Would he be better served in a nickel role?
All of the above are questions that apply to Tranquill, but none is as relevant as the following: will he be 100 percent in September following November 2014 ACL surgery?
The sky’s the limit for Tranquill when he’s back to the form he displayed as a Dime package linebacker over the first two months of 2014.
On the Horizon: Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta – A healthy Tranquill and the addition of Sebastian mitigates the need for either to contribute this season from scrimmage, but Williams is likely to get his feet wet on special teams.
Why They’re Last On Our List: Combined and taken singularly, the 2013 and 2014 safety units were train wrecks – unmitigated, unforeseen disasters at the position.
Conversely, the short-handed safety units of the past were solid at worst; game-changing playmakers at their collective and individual best:
-- 2010: Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta were the only healthy scholarship safeties for two months but combined for 17 passes defended, eight picks, and 143 tackles. Jamoris Slaughter added 31 stops, an interception, and four PD battling a high-ankle sprain along the way.
-- 2011: Smith, Motta, and Slaughter showed well throughout, combining for 175 tackles, three forced fumbles and 16 passes defended.
-- 2012: Motta won the team’s Defensive Player of the Year while Farley was, relative to expectations, outstanding over the final 10 games of the regular season after Slaughter was lost to an Achilles tear. Then a true freshman, Baratti was invaluable in wins over chief rivals Michigan and USC.
-- Wrought with suspension, in-season lineup changes, and injury, The 2013 and 2014 safety units inarguably ranked as the worst position group on their respective squads, and that’s hard to overlook.
It’s also highly unlikely to repeat in 2015, where a two-deep of Redfield/Shumate and Sebastian/Tranquill, plus Farley as a nickel and emergency safety if the need occurs, provides – at least on paper – everything a defensive coordinator could ask for in his unit.