Safety, to linebacker, and back to safety again.
It’s a career path followed by a handful that preceded senior John Turner at Notre Dame, and with a predictable mixed bag of career accomplishments as a result.
The gold standard for back-and-forth position switches is current Minnesota Vikings safety and former Irish captain Harrison Smith while other safeties trapped in a linebacker body include program standouts George Streeter (1985-1988) and John Covington (1990-93).
But the more likely path is that of career special teamer, and it’s a niche Turner has carved to the tune of 26 consecutive games played entering his senior season.
Irish Illustrated continues its ND A-to-Z series with Notre Dame’s “tweener” from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.
Turner not only starts for each of the four Irish “Run Teams” (kickoff and punt coverage and return) but distinguishes himself similarly to predecessors Bennett Jackson in 2010, Austin Collinsworth in 2011, Nicky Baratti, Chris Salvi, and Connor Cavalaris in 2012, James Onwualu, Max Redfield, and Devin Butler in 2013 and Onwualu and C.J. Prosise last fall.
Though Turner doesn’t possess the speed of a typical gunner on the coverage units, he enters his third consecutive season covering kicks and punts and could make an impact by doubling his special teams tackle totals from the previous two seasons (three in 2014; four in 2013), especially if a handful trap opposing offenses deep in their own territory.
A certain competitor on Notre Dame’s kickoff and punt return teams, Turner can earn his keep by consistently controlling his assigned defender on both. That weekly work, coupled with a pair of crucial blocks that spring an Irish return man for large gains in close contests would serve as a successful season, perhaps even one of major impact on the W-L column, in South Bend.
Turner posts a tackle total similar to last fall (three special teams, one from scrimmage) in a nondescript third campaign as a special teams starter. It’s a result shared by many during the Brian Kelly era: that is, they’re special teams starters in name only, not because they excel or impact competitive contests.
But as a senior, three-year contributor, Turner should be ready to elevate his game, both as a coverage man and blocker.
Turner’s career arc compares to fellow tweener Anthony Vernaglia (2004-2007), who bounced from safety to linebacker during the Charlie Weis era.
Vernaglia entered his senior season of 2007 with seven tackles to his credit (Turner has eight). Like Turner, Vernaglia switched positions entering college, moving from wide receiver to safety (Turner was a cornerback at Cathedral.) Both redshirted as true freshman safeties before moving to linebacker (Vernaglia as a sophomore; Turner as a junior).
The difference between the two lies in Turner’s opportunity on special teams and it’s one on which he must capitalize this fall in order to go out on a high note – or earn an unexpected fifth season in South Bend.
A three-star prospect and the 48th-ranked safety nationally per Scout.com, Turner joined what was an exceptionally crowded defensive backfield (nine defenders including rookies) for the 2012 season.
That number dwindled considerably over the next two seasons due to transfer (Chris Badger), injuries (Eilar Hardy, Collinsworth and Baratti), and position switches (Prosise, Matthias Farley, Turner as well), but Turner didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to make his mark from scrimmage.
His final season on special will determine if his career development betters that of his recruiting projection.
November 2, 2013, and a tackle that likely saved Notre Dame from another head-shaking loss to the Naval Academy.
With the Irish clinging to a 38-34 lead and just under four minutes to play, Navy kick returner Marcus Thomas took a Kyle Brindza boot from his own 1-yard line 49 yards down the Irish sideline to midfield. If not for a sideline tackle by Turner (aided by Brindza), Thomas would have gone much farther – a worst-case scenario, as they’d have bled clock en route to a possible game-winning score.
Instead, Navy had 3:48 remaining to execute its triple-option 50 yards for the win. They were stopped on a fourth-down end-around inside the Irish 30-yard line (Eilar Hardy, Jaylon Smith) and Brian Kelly avoided a second loss to the Mid’s over a four-season span.
“It was like a learning process the first, I'd say, eight, nine practices. Just getting used to like just being at the line of scrimmage, just being asked to do all the different jobs that they asked me to do.” – Turner on his position switch in the spring of 2014.