SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his best defensive players adopted an “All Hands On Deck” mantra in their last outing, the de facto playoff “play-in” contest at Stanford.
As a result, the leader of the Irish “run teams” (punt and kickoff coverage and returns), the omnipresent Matthias Farley, was joined by the likes of Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, and the entire starting Notre Dame secondary.
It’s safe to assume a similar approach will manifest for Friday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup against potent, speed-fueled Ohio State.
Except the presence of the squad’s Special Teams Player of the Year Farley could be compromised.
That’s because starting free safety Max Redfield was sent home Tuesday, the result of unspecified violations of team rules. Farley will start in his stead, but no football player can be at his best late in the fourth quarter if he never comes off the field. Ohio State’s up-tempo offensive attack exacerbates the situation.
“We have to prioritize where we utilize his effective plays,” said Kelly of Farley. “We’ll have to see, during the game, where we think we need to pull him and it might be for a defensive series to be quite honest, to be more effective on special teams. So we’ll balance it out during the game.”
In addition to seven special teams tackles, Farley down two punts inside the opponents’ two-yard line, stopped a fake punt and recovered an onside kick attempt.
“I’m not sure yet. There have been times in the past where I had a lot more reps but was still on all the special teams,” said Farley of Friday’s forthcoming roles. “It might be a game-time thing to see how many plays are happening.”
Kelly noted that similar to the outing at Stanford, it’s likely most of Notre Dame’s top tier players will participate on special teams against the Buckeyes.
THE ‘WHAT IF?’ SCENARIO
Redfield’s absence is compounded by previous season-ending injuries to safeties Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian. Long-speculated that the latter could aid the Irish in an emergency capacity (such as the college football playoffs), Sebastian appears unlikely to do so for the Fiesta Bowl for two reasons:
1.) His arrival to team headquarters is set for today (Wednesday) along with other injured players, and…
2.) By playing, he’d lose the chance to petition for a (likely) sixth season of collegiate eligibility next season.
That leaves senior Nicky Baratti as the main backup for both Farley at free safety and classmate Elijah Shumate on the strong side. Baratti, whose career has been beset by shoulder injuries (four) and surgeries (three), appeared in all 12 games this season registering six stops including four on special teams.
It was his first full season of action since debuting as a trusted backup safety and special teams regular as a true freshman in 2012. Highlights that fall included a goal-line interception in a win over Michigan and solo tackle in space vs. USC’s dynamic receiver and certified Irish killer Robert Woods on a midfield punt return.
This season Baratti received criticism for an “olé” tackle attempt on 4th-and-goal at Temple that resulted in a game-tying touchdown.
“Nicky will be our third safety,” said Kelly. “Nicky has since had a ton more opportunities in practice to prepare himself.”
Senior Elijah Shumate believes his friend and classmate is prepared for the potential challenge despite a career truncated by injuries.
“We came in together (2012) so I think about it all the time. I love Nicky,” said Shumate. “He started it off for the freshman crew with the first interception (against Michigan). It’s tough to watch how he went from (ascending) his freshman year but the injuries set him back a little bit. Nicky is a great kid, he’s battle-tested and this is another test. There’s nothing he can’t face and overcome.”
After Baratti are senior John Turner and true freshman Nicco Fertitta. A special teams regular in 2013 and 2014, Turner has appeared in five games this season including each of the last three, understandably missing time with the team prior dealing with a death in his family.
Fertitta appeared in 10 contests and registered a forced fumble on special teams along with his first career tackle.
There’s thin, there’s Mick Jagger, there’s the I-Phone 6, and after venturing long way down, you’ll find Notre Dame’s season-end safety depth.
LCB: Cole Luke, Nick Coleman
RCB: Nick Watkins, Nick Coleman
SS: Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, John Turner
FS: Matthias Farley, Nicky Baratti, Nicco Fertitta
During a season in which Notre Dame overcame continual injuries to critical members of its football team, it’s perhaps fitting the Irish will need to do so again to finish on top.