Todd Lyght didn’t have much choice.
Notre Dame’s first-year defensive backs coach couldn’t overwork his position in practices. He didn’t have many options in games either. The end result was a patchwork secondary plagued by miscommunications and injuries that put the Irish defense into desperation mode.
It started with Shaun Crawford’s season-ending ACL tear in August. Drue Tranquill’s own ACL tear followed. Then came KeiVarae Russell’s broken leg and Devin Butler’s broken foot. By the time Notre Dame faced Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish had abandoned their nickel defense. Playing dime was fantasy.
“They spread us out with four and five wide receivers, we have to be able to match up like personnel,” Lyght said. “We don’t want to be in a situation like that again.”
With any luck Notre Dame won’t be, even with Russell and Elijah Shumate gone and Max Redfield needing a personal upgrade. The rest of the secondary returns, Crawford should be healthy and seven defensive backs will be part of the freshman class, plus potential sixth-year senior safety Avery Sebastian, who missed all but the Texas game with a broken foot.
With Crawford and Sebastian expected back for spring practice but Butler and Tranquill likely limited, it should give Notre Dame 11 healthy defensive backs in March. That includes early enrollees Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry at safety.
Lyght said Perry could get a look as a “big nickel” while Studstill will work at free safety. When Jalen Elliott arrives this summer he’ll be a free safety. D.J. Morgan will work at strong. Of all the freshman defensive backs, Studstill should get the first playing time.
“He’s the real deal,” Lyght said. “We’re very lucky to have Devin. He’s the type of player that’s going to make an immediate impact on our program.”
Notre Dame’s incoming corners will arrive this summer in Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. Lyght said Love could play nickel in passing situations.
If all goes to plan, Notre Dame should open training camp with 18 scholarship defensive backs. A year ago the Irish hit the field at Culver with two less. Lyght said he expects at least five of the incoming freshmen to play.
“Last year it became a situation where we were running a skeleton crew pretty much,” Lyght said. “We really never could really rep them as much as we wanted to. And if you run the guys ragged, by the end of the season you’ll red line them and they won’t be able to have success.”
Notre Dame didn’t have much of it anyway, closing with just seven healthy/available defensive backs. And that group included Nicky Baratti, Nick Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, all deep reserves. Even corner Nick Watkins, who made his first start in the Fiesta Bowl, had barely played before facing Ohio State.
The issue moving forward is how defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can alter his approach to get that young talent on the field. Freshman contributions have been rare in the secondary under VanGorder, with Tranquill the major exception.
“At the corner position, while we want them to do a lot of different things, it’s within a package and a box that’s fairly easy to learn,” VanGorder said. “Safety’s a little different. We’re not gonna do anything with a player that he’s not comfortable in doing and that he hasn’t done quite a bit. That’s part of coaching.”
Regardless, Notre Dame can’t survive another season with such inflexibility in the secondary. A function nickel defense is a must and the Irish didn’t play a snap of it against Clemson or USC.
“It cuts into our inventory and our system, for sure,” VanGorder said. “Obviously any time you’re walking out an outside linebacker on a wide receiver, not only are you looking at a mismatch situation if you try to play man-to-man, if you’re consistently in zone you’re still talking about a bigger player with less ability to play in space and such, which is a lot of today’s college game.
“We want to be able to play a nickel package, a sub package for sure.”