Kelly’s Best Recruits: Defensive Backs

KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson were ranked as a running back and wide receiver respectively out of high school. They developed into two of ND’s better DBs.

SCOUT DEFENSIVE BACKS

1. 5* CB-Tee Shepard (2012) – No. 39 overall; No. 3 CB
2. 4* S-Elijah Shumate (2012) – No. 55 overall; No. 4 S
3. 4* S-Max Redfield (2013) – No. 57 overall; No. 5 S
4. 4* CB-Davonte Neal (2012) – No. 74 overall; No. 5 CB
5. 4* CB-Shaun Crawford (2015) – No. 116 overall; No. 15 CB

6. 4* S-Eilar Hardy (2011) – No. 175 overall: No. 12 S
7. 4* CB-Troy Pride Jr. (2016) – No. 176 overall; No. 16 CB
8. 4* CB-Cole Luke (2013) – No. 185 overall; No. 21 CB
9. 4* CB-Nick Watkins (2014) – No. 205 overall; No. 20 CB
10. 4* S-C.J. Prosise (2012) – No. 276 overall; No. 21 S

11. 4* Donte Vaughn (2016) – NR; No. 15 S
12. 4* S-Isaiah Robertson (2017) – NR; No. 30 S
13. 3* S-Nicky Baratti (2012) – NR; No. 17 S
14. 3* S-Jalen Elliott (2016) – NR; No. 21 S
15. 3* CB-Chris Badger (2010) – NR; No. 28 S

16. 3* S-Spencer Perry (2016) – NR; No. 29 S
17. 3* S-Devin Studstill (2016) – NR: No. 34 S
18. 3* CB-Devin Butler (2013) – NR; No. 36 CB
19. 3* CB-Julian Love (2016) – NR; No. 39 CB
20. 3* ATH-Jordan Genmark Heath (2017) – NR; No. 41 ATH

21. 3* S-Mykelti Williams (2015) – NR; No. 42 S
22. 3* CB-Ashton White (2015) – NR; No. 42 CB
23. 3* CB-Rashad Kinlaw (2013) – NR; No. 46 CB
24. 3* CB-Josh Atkinson (2011) – NR: No. 46 CB
25. 3* CB-Lo Wood (2010) – NR; No. 47 CB

26. 3* S-John Turner (2012) – NR; No. 48 S
27. 3* CB-Jalen Brown (2011) – NR; No. 52 CB
28. 3* CB-Nick Coleman (2015) – NR; No. 53 CB
29. 3* S-D.J. Morgan (2016) – NR; No. 58 S
30. 3* CB-Spencer Boyd (2010) – NR; No. 60 CB

31. 3* S-Nicco Fertitta (2015) – NR; No. 63 S
32. 3* CB-Matthias Farley (2011) – NR; No. 82 CB
33. 3* S- Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (2017) – NR; No. 83 S
34. 3* S-Austin Collinsworth (2010) – NR; No. 99 S
35. 2* S-Derek Roback (2010) – NR; No. 102 S

LOW RANKINGS

Landing high-level cornerbacks and safeties has been difficult during the Brian Kelly era. In fact, the Irish have had to borrow from other positions (i.e. KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson, Drue Tranquill) to piece together solid defensive backfields.

Of the 35 prospects listed as defensive backs coming out of high school, 23 – 65.7 percent – were three-star prospects (or below).

Notre Dame doesn’t recruit particularly well in the defensive backfield (compared to most other positions), although the 2016 recruiting haul appears to be the exception with five of seven – Julian Love, Jalen Elliott, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr. and Devin Studstill – making contributions as freshmen. Love and Elliott are slated for starting assignments as sophomores this fall.

(Note: The Irish also landed three top 100 overall prospects in 2012 in the defensive secondary, although two – Tee Shepard and Davonte Neal – fizzled at Notre Dame. Elijah Shumate was the third.)

POSITION SWITCH

• Bennett Jackson – Rated a three-star prospect and the No. 51 wide receiver in the recruiting class of 2010, Jackson moved to cornerback and blossomed, playing in 52 games. Named a tri-captain on the 2013 team with Zack Martin and TJ Jones, Bennett finished his career with 157 tackles and both of his career interceptions in ‘13 while finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 63.

Jackson’s junior season was better than his senior year, but he played through significant shoulder issues and started each of his last 26 games in an Irish uniform.

• KeiVarae Russell – Rated the 207th best player in the country and a top 25 prep running back in 2012, the Irish had an immediate need at cornerback with the departure of Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, and a pre-season injury to Lo Wood.

Russell immediately distinguished himself as the Irish went 12-0 during the regular season. He had 58 tackles and two interceptions as a freshman, followed by a 51-tackle, one-interception sophomore season in ’13.

Before the start of his junior season, he was suspended, along with four others, in an academic misconduct investigation. Following an up-and-down 2015 campaign that ended with a serious leg injury, he bypassed the last year of his eligibility with the Irish and became a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2016.

Russell finished with 37 starts, 169 tackles and five interceptions in three seasons at Notre Dame.

• Drue Tranquill – Scout listed Tranquill as a four-star outside linebacker prospect, which went against most projections. But the part safety-part linebacker is on the verge of living up to his No. 171 overall ranking in 2014 with two years of eligibility remaining.

After suffering season-ending knee injuries in 2014 and 2015, Tranquill returned to action at safety in ’16 where he struggled in the Brian VanGorder defense. New defensive coordinator Mike Elko moved him to Rover (outside linebacker) this spring.

In just 26 games, Tranquill has 121 tackles, including 79 in 2016, with 5½ tackles for loss.

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

• Julian Love – Ranked below the midway point of cornerback/safety prospects signed by the Irish since 2010, this three-star prospect emerged as a natural during his rookie campaign in ’16. Showing the versatility to play cornerback or safety, Love had 45 tackles (tied for eighth) despite starting just eight games. He shifted to safety for the Army game.

Not only does he show the intelligence to play multiple roles for the Irish, Love represents himself and his team like a future captain.

FIZZLED TOP 300s

• Tee Shepard – Notre Dame’s top-rated defensive back prospect and only five-star in the secondary during the Kelly era. His days at Notre Dame were limited before moving on to Holmes Community College, Mississippi, a brief flirtation with Miami (Ohio) and then the Indoor Football League.

• Davonte Neal – After one season/21 punt returns as a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012, Neal transferred to Arizona, where he caught 27 passes for 214 yards in 2014 before transitioning to cornerback. He intercepted a pass in 2015 and 2016, finishing with 85 career tackles. He returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown against Washington State in ’14.

• Eilar Hardy – The sixth highest-ranked defensive back signed by Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly era, Hardy never did live up to his four-star billing in the secondary, although he was credited with 26 tackles in 2013.

Caught up in an academic scandal, he played two games after being reinstated late in the 2014 season before transferring to Bowling Green. Hardy made an impact with the Falcons, collecting 82 tackles and a pair of interceptions in 2015.

ONE THAT GOT AWAY

• C.J. Prosise – Scout ranked Prosise the No. 276 overall prospect and No. 21 safety in the country in ’12. But after preserving a season, it was clear defense was not his forte. He moved to slot receiver in 2013, catching seven passes for 72 yards in his transition season. He finished fifth on the team in receptions in 2014 with 29 for 516 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Looking for more depth and diversity at the running back position heading into 2015, Brian Kelly shifted Prosise. Through seven games, Prosise had rushed for 922 yards on 129 carries (7.1-yard average) and 11 touchdowns. He carried the football just 27 times for 110 yards over the final six games as injuries ultimately limited him to 1,032 yards on 156 carries (6.6-yard average). He then entered the NFL draft as the 90th overall selection (third round) of the Seattle Seahawks.

IRISH IMPORT

• Cody Riggs – Often forgotten is Notre Dame’s defensive backfield equation under Kelly is Florida graduate transfer Cody Riggs, who was recruited out of high school by the Irish and is the nephew of former Irish wide receiver Bobby Brown.

Riggs’ arrival prior to the ’14 season proved significant with a) the graduation of Bennett Jackson and b) the suspension of KeiVarae Russell.

Riggs stepped into the starting lineup, starting all 11 games he appeared in with the Irish. (A late-season injury deprived him of two more). Riggs had 36 tackles, an interception, and seven passes defensed/broken up. He also served as Notre Dame’s top punt returner with a 7.3-yard average on 13 attempts.

CURRENT RANKING

1. KeiVarae Russell (see above)

2. Cole Luke – Played in 51 games for the Irish, starting 38, with 152 career tackles and eight interceptions, four of which came in his sophomore season (2014) -- arguably his best and most consistent year.

3. Matthias Farley – One of the most underrated players of the Brian Kelly era. Farley – Scout’s No. 82-ranked cornerback in 2011 – played in 52 games and started 26. He had 190 career tackles and eight interceptions, including four in 2014.

4. Bennett Jackson (see above)

5. Drue Tranquill (see above)

6. Elijah Shumate – Armed with a reputation as a big-hitter coming out of New Jersey, Shumate ultimately saved his best for last, totaling 70 of his 168 career stops in his senior season (2015) when he finished third on the squad in tackles. Shumate played 48 games for the Irish, starting 26. Of his 10 career tackles for loss, 6½ came in his senior season.

7. Max Redfield – The second-highest rated safety recruited by Kelly, Redfield looked the part but never quite played it to the level of his athletic ability. He played in 36 games, starting 23, finishing with 144 tackles and a pair of interceptions. But he had difficulty learning the complexities of the safety position, and then finally was asked to leave following a 2016 pre-season drug-related incident.

8. Austin Collinsworth – Just the 99th-ranked safety in the country in 2010, the son of former NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth maximized his talent while battling a litany of injuries (shoulder/knee) throughout his five years at Notre Dame. He captained the 2014 squad with Sheldon Day and Nick Martin. He finished with 44 games played/13 starts with 81 career tackles and three interceptions (all in ’13).
 
9. Cody Riggs (see above)

10. Julian Love (see above)

11. Devin Butler – Played 37 games for the Irish before an off-the-field incident last
August, on the same night five others were arrested, spelled the end of his playing time at Notre Dame. Butler played in 37 games, finishing with 39 tackles, an interception and eight passes defense. He announced his intention to transfer to Syracuse in December.

12. Devin Studstill – Played in all 12 games for the Irish, starting nine, as a freshman in ’16. Finished with 38 tackles, but finds himself in a fight for playing time with the emergence of former cornerback Nick Coleman and classmate Jalen Elliott.

13. Donte Vaughn – Long, talented athlete flashed his ability with seven passes defensed, an interception and 22 tackles in limited work as a freshman in ‘16. Although not listed as a starter coming out of the spring, DC Mike Elko likely has big plans.

14. Nick Watkins – Couldn’t get on the field until the Fiesta Bowl following the 2015 season when injuries prompted his insertion. He played well against the Buckeyes and was in line for a starting job in ’16 when he suffered a broken arm in the spring, which didn’t heal properly and forced him to sit out the campaign. With two years of eligibility, the Irish could benefit greatly in 2017-18.

15. Shaun Crawford – Star-crossed talent who has played just two games due to knee (2015) and Achilles (2016) injuries. A no-doubt-about-it starter and potential standout for the Irish if he can just stay on the field.

16. Nick Coleman – Projected as a starting safety upon the conclusion of spring drills, Coleman still has much to prove after several missteps at cornerback last year forced him into a special teams role.

17. Jalen Elliott – Appears to have gotten a foot up on classmate Devin Studstill this spring for the starting safety spot opposite Nick Coleman. Finished with 14 tackles as a freshman, including four each against Syracuse and Army.

18. Troy Pride Jr. – Played in eight games as a freshman, totaling 12 stops and a fumble recovered.

19. Nicco Fertitta – Tenacious special teams standout has 18 tackles and one knockout from the safety position in two seasons. His blast of USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware earned him a targeting penalty in last year’s regular-season finale.

20. Lo Wood – Played in 21 games in 2010-11, mostly on special teams, with 10 tackles. A pre-season Achilles injury in ’12 put an end to his time at Notre Dame. Ultimately transferred to Miami (Ohio), where he played 12 games with 32 tackles and two tackles for loss in 2014.

21. Nicky Baratti – Played in 28 games with 15 tackles. Remembered mostly for his goal-line interception against Michigan as a freshman in 2012, helping the Irish preserve a 13-6 victory over the Wolverines en route to a 12-0 regular season.


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