Jamoris Slaughter appears ready to assume the free safety role, one that's key to the evolution of a secondary that must improve greatly from 2009.
"Our safeties in this defense are big (important); our quarterback of the defense," explained defensive backs coach Chuck Martin in the spring. "He's very articulate and vocal, so he has all the traits needed to be a good safety. He understands the different coverages and fronts. With more experience, I think he can be outstanding."
Slaughter's intermittent playing time from scrimmage precluded him from showing his best last fall. He debuted at cornerback in the second half of the opener vs. Nevada, registering a teeth-shaking hit (following an 18-yard gain), but didn't appear with the defense the following week at Michigan and was then victimized by a gadget play touchdown vs. Michigan State one week later.
Slaughter did not make a scrimmage appearance vs. Purdue, Washington, or USC but reemerged in the rotation against Boston College, earning time at safety as a result of the move of Harrison Smith from free safety to the linebacker corps.
He responded with three tackles vs. the Eagles and a solid hit downfield, but was ultimately replaced by Sergio Brown on the defense's final stand. The sophomore then failed to earn quality minutes over the next three contests (Navy, Pittsburgh, Connecticut), but did appear extensively in the second half vs. Stanford, an opportunity he believes was beneficial heading into the spring.
"I got a lot of experience vs. Stanford, 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 (teammates) are doing. I got a feel for that at corner, and now I have corner skills and safety skills."
Slaughter whet his appetite last fall with consistent special teams play (110 appearances) and 33 minutes of game action, more than half of which was under heavy fire with games in doubt.
Slaughter's 2010 OutlookListed at 6'0" 195 pounds (Slaughter needs a phone book to reach that height), Slaughter continually showed the ability to break on the ball and on plays in front of him during our spring viewings. He broke up two passes (a seam and a corner route, the latter of which he dropped) in the Blue Gold Game and I noted him for multiple solid plays vs. receivers during the team's passing drills over the final week of spring ball.
I mentioned during the spring that Slaughter was my early choice as a breakout player/fan favorite for the season's first month. His size and calm demeanor belies an attacking mindset – Irish fans need not worry about continued tentative play from the team's free safeties in 2010; Slaughter trusts what he sees and attacks the ball, the play, and the opponent with ferocity.
"Out of football I'm laid back," Slaughter told a media gathering in the spring. "But when I get on the field and put the pads on it's serious."
The Irish secondary has featured several quality safeties this decade, beginning with Tony Driver in 2000 and extending through All-America level play by the Gerome Sapp/Glen Earl duo in 2002. After two seasons without back line guidance, Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe stepped in to make impact plays in '05 and '06 (especially '05) while David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy served as the defense's backbone in recent seasons.
But the unit fared poorly late last year (even the previously productive McCarthy's play dropped off, due partly to a necessary move to free safety in November), and Slaughter will be asked to assume a leadership role for the group through the next three seasons (he's eligible to play through 2012). It's a role he relishes.
I can say I'm happier at safety because I like to be the quarterback of the defense and see everything," Slaughter noted in April. "It's a lot more comfortable being back and playing a deep half and playing in space, for me. I can take good angles to the ball, it helps a lot.
"Coach Martin wants me to step up and try to be a leader. He knows I'm talented and I can play."
Talent and confidence aside, Slaughter knows he has room to grow and become well-versed with the nuances of his craft.
"I need to get better with technical things, like footwork, and understanding our coverages," he stated. "But (playing cornerback) helped me to move back to safety because I have cornerback skills; the footwork to play receivers one-on-one."
As the defense's last refuge, a free safety's first step is always back. If Slaughter can learn to control the deep middle/half and deter opposing deep balls, his penchant to attack – to bring the big hit vs. opposing receivers – could become a calling card of the new Irish defense.
Slaughter's Best in 2009
- Boston College: Perhaps a portent of things to come in 2010? Notre Dame's five-man rush was picked up, giving Eagles QB Dave Shinskie a passing lane downfield. Solid coverage by Slaughter over the top of the defense forced Shinskie to fire conservatively out of bounds but Slaughter, the ever-willing hitter delivered a borderline late blow on BC receiver Colin Larmond, in the process sending a necessary message rarely offered by other Irish DBs last fall.
- Washington State: In his first career start, Slaughter recorded a career-best four tackles while adding a diving fumble recovery of punt returner Golden Tate's muffed catch.
- Stanford: Leading 38-30 in the 4th Quarter, Slaughter shook off a lead block and helped deliver a 1st Down stop at the line of scrimmage vs. Cardinal bull and Heisman finalist Toby Gerhart.
Slaughter's moments to forget from 2009
- Michigan State: With the Irish leading 13-3 early in the 2nd Quarter, Slaughter was completely fooled by WR Blair White on a gadget pass for a 30-yard score (Slaughter bit on a run to his side of the field, but the ball carrier, Keshawn Martin, pulled up to toss an impossible-to-miss pass to White for the score). Ultimately, a well-designed play by MSU to target the inexperienced Slaughter at corner.
- Boston College: Slaughter was beaten twice by wide receiver Rich Gunnell, the first on a 20-yard completion early in the second half in which the sophomore offered solid coverage; and later, on the game's final possession, BC completed a crucial 4th-and-17 pass for 26 yards and an inexplicable first down. Slaughter was one of two Irish defenders beaten badly by a hard step to the right by the crafty Gunnell.
- Stanford: Slaughter was participant No. 3 in the run that defined Notre Dame's defensive season of 2009. With the score tied at 38, Stanford faced a 2nd and 5 at its own 35-yard line. Tailback Toby Gerhart ran through a Brian Smith arm tackle; over Gary Gray; and shed a flat-footed, too-high attempt by Slaughter en route to a bruising 13-yard foray through would be Irish tacklers. Later in the drive, Gerhart ran past Slaughter, who slid down Gerhart's body on a tackle attempt for a 19-yard gain down to the Irish 4-yard line, setting up the eventual game-winning score.