Taking Applications

Notre Dame could have a new pair of starting safeties for the first time since 2001 when upperclassmen Gerome Sapp and Donald Dykes replaced graduated seniors Ron Israel and Tony Driver along the back line. Part Five of our spring position previews examines the least experienced position group of Bob Diaco's defense.

With the start of spring practice 16 days away, IrishEyes continues its preview of each player and the team's key position groups. Today's edition: Safeties.

Wide Receivers Spring Preview: Wide Open

Tight Ends Spring Preview: In Good Hands

Running Backs Spring Preview: Crowded House

Cornerbacks Spring Preview: Under Siege

Three returning Irish safety candidates earned monograms last season: senior Harrison Smith (2 years of eligibility remaining); junior Jamoris Slaughter (3 years remaining); and sophomore Zeke Motta (3 years remaining). Smith played the second half of the season in a nickel linebacker role while Slaughter played the first half of the season as a backup cornerback. Motta's safety position was more of a hybrid OLB.

Junior-to-be Dan McCarthy (3 years remaining) also received playing time, largely as a member of the Irish special teams.

Playing Time: 2009

  • Harrison Smith – 299:32 with 127 Special Teams appearances
  • Jamoris Slaughter – 33:51 with 110 ST appearances.
  • Zeke Motta – 11:06 with 166 ST appearances
  • Dan McCarthy – 1:08 with 15 ST appearances

It's the Hit that Fits – Jamoris Slaughter

A high school safety, Slaughter has three seasons of eligibility remaining and is expected to fight for a starting safety role this fall. Slaughter began his Irish career at cornerback but after showing well last spring, fell behind a quartet of veterans in the CB pecking order as the season progressed. He made the move to safety prior to Game Seven and earned a start vs. Washington State in Game Eight.

We Have Questions: Slaughter seems a better fit at safety than cornerback, but I'm basing that on limited appearances last season: one in which every Irish CB had noticeable issues in coverage at varying times. Is he a free safety due to his ability or simply due to a need at the position? Can anyone challenge him for the role or push him as the season approaches/progresses? Will Slaughter continue to man the outside of Notre Dame's coverage units? Hitting vulnerable receivers isn't an issue for most defensive backs; can he hold up full-time in run support? Could he audition at strong safety as well?

Hope Springs Eternal: It was an admittedly small sample size, but Slaughter appeared to bring a ferocity and finishing quality to each hit not seen by other members of the 2009 secondary. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining and could be the versatile difference-maker this defense missed last season.

Spring Prediction: The starting free safety role and borderline defensive MVP of the spring session.

Athlete Turned Football Player? – Harrison Smith

At some point last summer I had the gall to ask if the Irish might miss the graduated David Bruton – a player that covered more ground in the deep secondary than any Irish safety since Jeff Burris…I didn't think they'd miss him to such a large degree.

Smith was at his best as a blitzer, both vs. the run and pass; and noticeably better as a slot defender/outside linebacker than as the backline quarterback of the Irish secondary. He finished with 6.5 tackles-for-loss (third on the squad) five of which occurred over the last six weeks when he was moved into the box and able to use his athleticism rather than have the responsibility of calling or relaying defensive signals.

We Have Questions: Have we seen the last of Smith in an outside linebacker role? Can he become a reliable deep defender in his probable move back to safety? Will Smith be tried at strong safety, or a DB position in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's defense that allows him to play aggressively at the snap? Will Smith be put back in a play-calling/adjustment role, one in which he struggled last season? With two seasons remaining, can Smith become the collegiate football player his level of athleticism suggests?

Hope Springs Eternal: Brian Kelly has openly stated that player development will be the strong suit of this coaching staff. Harrison Smith is Experiment No. 1 for the 2010 Irish defense.

Spring Prediction: Smith wins the strong safety starting job with Slaughter manning the free safety role. Smith's role will be expanded in the fall.

The Big Nickel – Zeke Motta

One of the team's key special teams contributors as a true freshman, Motta beat out 5th-year senior Ray Herring for a role in the team's Dime defensive package. He then lost his spot to Herring at mid-season, and took over again (though the Irish played this package for fewer snaps in November) after the Boston College victory.

We Have Questions: Will Motta challenge at strong safety or outside linebacker in the base defense? Does his ability to play both create a hybrid role for the sophomore? As the epitome of a "Big Skill" recruit, will Motta serve a multitude of roles (jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none) as he learns his second system in two college seasons? Motta looked a bit stiff covering the flat in limited action last season; was the merely a function of his unfamiliarity with the defense or defensive adjustments?

Hope Springs Eternal: Motta appears destined for a role in the defense, but like Harrison Smith, its difficult to discern where he's best suited after last season. He possesses athletic ability and a willingness to hit: two elements sure to bring notoriety in early spring scrimmages.

Spring Prediction: Notre Dame's 13th defender (with the backup CB technically being No. 12), either as a hybrid DB near the line or a player challenging for a role in the two-deep at outside linebacker, where he has a distinct advantage in coverage over Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, and Kerry Neal.

All Good Things to Those Who Wait – Dan McCarthy

McCarthy has appeared in roughly two snaps from scrimmage (both in the blowout win over Washington State). With no set starter and just three veterans to compete against, the redshirt-junior steps into an open competition at safety entering the spring.

We Have Questions: Is McCarthy fully recovered from a neck injury suffered in November 2007? A dynamic high school quarterback; has McCarthy found a home in the secondary? McCarthy will likely compete for both safety positions; could he and Slaughter form a rookie/redshirt-junior tandem next fall?

Hope Springs Eternal: No matter his future position, McCarthy's best season will not be 2010. But there's no reason he can't contribute in small doses and push the team's starter at both spots (as his brother Kyle did in 2007).

Spring Prediction: The No. 2 free safety behind Jamoris Slaughter.

Opportunity Knocks – Chris Badger

Notre Dame hasn't had a true freshman start at safety since Deke Cooper took over the free safety role in the second half of the 1996 season. Badger, an early-enrollee freshman, has just four players ahead of him on the depth chart entering the spring.

We Have Questions: Can he make enough noise next month to get a foot in the door entering the fall? Can he beat out any of the four veteran safeties to earn a two-deep spot as the team adjourns for the summer?

Hope Springs Eternal: High school 40-yard dash times are largely irrelevant, but Badger is a true football player on film…if he can play to his 4.65 time at 6'1" 212 he'll compete right away along the uncertain backline of the Irish secondary. Field awareness, positioning, and the ability to trust what he sees could give Badger a leg up among a group of raw players.

Spring Prediction: Nothing but positives from the coaching staff; a strong showing in the Blue Gold Game…but the No. 5 safety role as the team leaves for the summer. Badger's early enrollment is key as safety, especially safety depth, is a question mark for 2010.

Note: The film reviews and season previews of each player that appeared daily from May through the end of July last season will again be featured in the summer months.

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