For the last few years, Notre Dame has had a secondary – particularly at the safety position – held together by a thread that was always on the verge of unraveling.
With injuries, the inability to understand the complexities of the position and ultimately a bowl-game suspension, Notre Dame has found itself holding on for dear life on the back end of its defense.
And yet despite the fact that safeties Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley are walking out the door with cornerback KeiVarae Russell -- taking with them a boatload of experience -- Notre Dame will have ample bodies at cornerback and safety by this fall.
In fact, when you add in the seven current defensive backs verbally committed to the Irish in the signing Class of 2016 – including Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill, who already are enrolled at the University – the Irish have a proverbial cornucopia of options in the secondary.
To be sure, a vast majority of that talent is unproven. How unproven? Of the scholarship cornerbacks listed below, five of the nine have never taken a snap on the collegiate level.
Three incoming freshmen (Julian Love, Donte’ Vaughn and Troy Pride, Jr.) have yet to arrive while two second-semester freshmen (Shaun Crawford and Ashton White) preserved a year of eligibility in 2015. Another rookie (Nick Coleman) prepped to play cornerback (and did very briefly), but mainly garnered special teams reps and practice experience.
Only veterans Cole Luke and Devin Butler have logged significant time at the position while Nick Watkins’ starting debut in the Fiesta Bowl was, for all intents and purposes, also his cornerback debut on the collegiate level.
The situation is fairly similar at safety. Max Redfield is the safety equivalent to Luke at cornerback in terms of extensive playing time. Like Crawford at cornerback/nickel, safeties Avery Sebastian – who is expected to return for a sixth year of eligibility – and Drue Tranquill missed all or most of the ’15 season due to injury.
The Irish have promising Mykelti Williams at safety after preserving a year of eligibility. Nicco Fertitta likely will spend the majority of his career working on special teams.
The numbers in the freshman class alone offer promise and much-needed bodies. If all seven verbally-committed prospects sign with the Irish, they’ll have 18 defensive backs – nine safeties and nine cornerbacks – on the roster this fall.
Three cornerbacks and four safeties are projected to join the Irish with the aforementioned Perry and Studstill already getting a taste of the process as early entries. (Note: Perry, also a potential outside linebacker, should be the only one of the seven verbally-committed defensive backs who could possibly move from the back end of the defense.)
The following depth chart is Irish Illustrated’s early stab at a pecking order in the secondary with freshmen listed behind the returning players. As usual, there’s flexibility between the cornerback spots and the safety spots.
• CB -- Nick Watkins (Jr.), Shaun Crawford (So.), Ashton White (So.), Donte’ Vaughn (Fr.)
• SS -- Avery Sebastian (6th), Drue Tranquill (Jr.), Spencer Perry (Fr.), D.J. Morgan (Fr.)
• FS -- Max Redfield (Sr.), Mykelti Williams (So.), Nicco Fertitta (So.), Devin Studstill (Fr.), Jalen Elliott (Fr.)
• CB -- Cole Luke (Sr.), Devin Butler (Sr.), Nick Coleman (So.), Julian Love (Fr.), Troy Pride, Jr. (Fr.)
Crawford obviously would be a leading candidate for the nickel spot – provided he doesn’t win a cornerback slot – since he had it nailed down in August before he was sidelined for the season with a torn ACL.
Likewise, a healthy Drue Tranquill is always a wildcard in the Irish defense with the ability to play in the box and pressure off the edge in five- and six-defensive back alignments. In fact, he’s probably more effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage.
However it all shakes out, secondary coach Todd Lyght will have considerably more to work with than he had in his first season instructing the Irish defensive backs, which at the very least gives Notre Dame more options and flexibility than they’ve had for a couple of years.