There for the Taking

The Notre Dame defensive backfield could feature a pair of new safety starters for the first time since the 2001 season.

Head coach Brian Kelly's spring Media Day musing, "We (were) 15-21 the last three years…they know. There are no bruised egos," served as sweet music to the fed up Irish fans' collective ear.

Regardless of your particular allegiance late last November - a time when the program once again considered change in leadership – no fan of the program deemed the previous three, five, or 15 seasons of on-field product acceptable.

But Kelly, openly miffed that his team's exuberance did not match his own last week, did not inherit a roster bereft of experience and talent. In other words, if the Irish were an NFL franchise, Kelly and Co. would not blow up the operation in an effort to rebuild: the pieces, however scattered and apparently ill-prepared, are in place.

The squad boasts a wide receiver and tight end that are the envy of any collegiate coach; a senior running back who improved across the board as a junior; veteran leadership to guide inexperience, but not necessarily youth, along the offensive line; and eight front seven competitors who've made between 9 and 24 starts in an Irish uniform.

And three returning CB candidates (each of which was highly thought of at this point last season) boast an aggregate 40 career starts.

Then there's the complete unknown, the back line of the defense and key to the secondary: the safety positions.

Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin will choose two starters, and more than likely, three regular contributors, from a quintet of inexperienced safetymen for 2010.

Depending on the duo that prevails, the team's last line of defense will feature between 0 and 7 career starts in the secondary. (Add the unique case of SLB turned FS turned hybrid nickel LB Harrison Smith and the total number of starts jumps significantly, as shown below).

Safeties at a Glance

Notre Dame hasn't begun a season with a pair of new starting safeties since 2001, when junior Gerome Sapp beat out incumbent Ron Israel to earn a starting role alongside fellow first-timer Donald Dykes (Dykes replaced Tony Driver after the 2000 season).

The departure of two-year starter Kyle McCarthy and latter-half '09 starter Sergio Brown opens the door for a new duo next fall. Regardless of the winning tandem, Kelly, Diaco, Martin, and Irish fans nationwide are likely to undergo moments of angst the first few times an opposing pass sails far downfield.

Below is a look at Notre Dame's experience at the position entering 2010:

  • Harrison Smith – Career starts: 20. Career starts in the defensive backfield: 6. Tackles last season as a Safety: 36 (19 solos and 17 assists).
  • Jamoris Slaughter Career starts: 1. Career minutes played from scrimmage: 33:51. Total tackles: 14 (Slaughter made 110 special teams appearances last season).
  • Zeke Motta Career starts: 0. Games played: 12. Career minutes played from scrimmage: 11:06. Total tackles: 12 (Motta made 166 special teams appearances last season).
  • Dan McCarthy Career starts: 0. Games played: 5. Career minutes played from scrimmage: 1:08. Total tackles: 1 (vs. Washington State).
  • Chris Badger Games played: 0. Badger is an early enrollee freshman participating in his first Irish practices this spring.

Competition: Condensed, yet Wide Open

While the team's ongoing auditions at the wide receiver position can be compared to an open casting call (all levels of talent and experience welcome), the competition at safety is a bit more intimate, and certainly more balanced. A senior, two juniors, and a sophomore will battle for two spots, while a first-semester freshman works to get a leg up on his incoming classmates next August.

It's currently (and likely to remain) a four-man race, and remaining speculation regarding the group's elder statesman Smith and his positional slotting for 2010 ended when Kelly met with the media to kick off the spring session.

"He never would have been an outside ‘backer in our system," Kelly offered. "He never fit that prototype for us. If he can't play safety (for Kelly) he can't play. So it was (a pretty easy decision)."

The majority of Smith's highlights last season occurred near the line of scrimmage (we'll cover that during the summer). While he has the athletic ability to play and possibly excel along the back line, there's definitive video evidence to the contrary.

Plenty of Promise but No Proof

While Smith represents Player Development Project No. 1 for Kelly and staff; Smith's competitors, especially sophomore Zeke Motta and junior Dan McCarthy qualify as complete unknowns – former high school stars that go from niche (Motta) and bench (McCarthy) roles to possible front line players.

"I like four safeties right now," Kelly stated before the team broke for the Easter Holiday. "I think we've got four safeties that showed some real good downhill tackling ability. That puts Zeke Motta in that conversation. I think Jamoris Slaughter (has played well). And I really like (Dan) McCarthy, the way he's playing."

Kelly added later that McCarthy (along with LB Anthony McDonald) represented positive surprises through four practices.

To date, player praise from Kelly has been earned (a far cry from the last regime, one that repeatedly gushed each pre-season over the development and skill set of mediocre football teams).

But plaudits from Kelly notwithstanding, game experience and on-field evidence of playmaking skills by the aforementioned safeties remain to be seen. To wit:

Career interceptions by the group above? 0.

Career passes defended: 4. (Smith broke up four passes last season – at least one of which occurred during a blitz from his LB spot). Slaughter, McCarthy, and Motta have yet to record their first.

"You are what you are" once again applies. Not even Kelly knows how members of the safety quartet will react when the bullets go live next fall.

The Natural?

At 5'11" 195 pounds, Jamoris Slaughter doesn't possess prototype size for the safety position, but he's a willing hitter and an intriguing veteran (junior) prospect; one with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

The junior from Stone Mountain, GA appears to be running as the team's No. 1 free safety, but he realizes that early April designation means little.

"I can only worry about myself, I don't know how everyone else is doing," Slaughter offered. "I just know I have to work hard, and there are no set position(s)."

Slaughter has added 10 pounds (now 195) from his official listing last season, due largely weight room dedication and his new found love for the team's celebrated training table meals. Though a bit uncomfortable with his sure-to-evolve status, he did mention one aspect of his game of which he believes the staff has taken note.

"My work ethic, before practice and in the weight room. I'm trying to be a leader. In the four practices that we've had I've been trying to go hard (on every rep)."

That's the only approach Kelly will or should tolerate, and one that puts Slaughter in position to grab the free safety role for the foreseeable future. It's a position for which Slaughter believes he's well-suited...not that two seasons of CB tutelage didn't help.

"Playing CB (last year) helped me a lot; I just notice when we do one-on-one (drills) now that I have better footwork."

Slaughter officially moved to the back line following the loss to USC last season.

"It helped," Slaughter said of the mid-season position switch. "Especially when they moved me back to safety for the BC game, because I got a feel for (the position again), instead of just coming out here (in the spring and starting fresh).

"I got a lot of experience vs. Stanford (in the season-finale), learning the calls and more about playing safety. I played safety in high school so I already had a feel for it, but in high school you don't know what the other guys (the rest of the defenders) are doing. I got a feel for that at corner, and now I have corner skills and safety skills."

Slaughter, who noted that having three years of eligibility remaining helped him with the regime change, received a Day One wakeup call regarding the new staff's approach.

"Coach Kelly brought a lot of attention to detail; small things. When he first came in, everyone had to have their locker (organized) a certain way. That's when I knew…‘it was about to get real,'" Slaughter admitted with a laugh.

"I think everyone's buying into the system and everyone wants to get better. We don't want to go 6-6 or 7-6 again. Everyone's working hard and listening to everything Coach Kelly has to tell us."

Sage advice from one of the new veteran leaders of the 2010 Irish safety unit. Top Stories