Junior Matthias Farley
's unexpected ascent last fall allowed the Notre Dame
program to continue an impressive chain of command along the back line.
Since the 2005 season, when junior Tom Zbikowski returned as an accomplished starter to help guide the Irish defensive secondary, the program's coaches have enjoyed the presence of at least one proven commodity patrolling their last line of defense.
Zbikowski (2004-07), Chinedum Ndukwe (2005-06), David Bruton (2007-08), Kyle McCarthy (2008-09), Harrison Smith (2009-11), Jamoris Slaughter (2010-12) and Zeke Motta (2010-12), continued that string of success, each starring at the position albeit by disparate means.
Enter expected 2013 starter Farley, he of the meteoric 2012 rise from too-heavy backup safety last spring, to invaluable, emergent starter of 11 games last fall.
Alongside Farley for 2013?
Your guess is likely as good as mine -- or theirs.
Seven of the team's eight safety prospects will be on hand for spring ball. None of the group exhausts eligibility after the 2013 season, including sophomore Elijah Shumate
, the team's nickel defender last fall and a potential ninth safety candidate this spring/season.
Position Coach: Bob Elliott -- Enters his second season coaching safeties and, in congress with cornerbacks coach/co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks, tutoring the secondary. Elliott enters his 35th year of coaching college ball, 29 of which spent on the defensive side of scrimmage, either primarily with defensive backs or as the coordinator of a defense.
The venerable leader received a kidney transplant from his sister, Betsy, in mid-February, and has since resumed his duties with the program.
Spring Combatants: Senior (redshirt-junior) Austin Collinsworth, juniors (redshirt-sophomores) Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy; sophomores Nicky Baratti and Chris Badger, sophomores (redshirt-freshmen) John Turner and C.J. Prosise.
Sophomore Elijah Shumate tutored with the cornerbacks last fall in preparation for his specific "nickel" role as a rookie in 2012. The 200-pound Shumate could move back to his natural safety spot for spring 2013.
Incoming Talent: Four-star prospect and former USC pledge, Max Redfield
Returning Starter: Matthias Farley
Two of the seven competitors listed above have earned quality game experience: the senior-to-be Collinsworth, who missed all of last season due to shoulder surgery from an injury suffered in the Blue Gold Game, and Baratti, who as a true freshman, emerged as the first safety off the bench by the end of September, though due partly to the loss of 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter one week prior.
Baratti's debut was notable -- and end zone interception vs. rival Michigan killed a Wolverines drive. He also saw significant time vs. Pittsburgh as well as in games with greater margins.
Collinsworth, the 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year, had ascended to "third starter" status last spring prior to injury. Said Elliott of his new pupil just three months into their time together:
"I think he's been as impressive to me as any of the guys back there. I expected good things, but he's met or exceeded expectations in every way. He's been so consistent all spring. Today is practice No. 9, he's nine for nine. Hasn't had a bad day. That consistency has caught my eye. He has a good skill set. I think he can do some things. He plays with great effort and intensity. I like everything about Austin."
Collinsworth's hurdles are two-fold: recovery not only from shoulder surgery, but off-season back surgery (discectomy), and the reality that there is ample, young talent -- bigger, stronger, and faster, though not all in the same package -- pushing for a starting spot.
Speaking of Which -- Where to Elijah?
Why would Notre Dame move 2012 cornerback/nickel Elijah Shumate to safety when it already has a host of able-bodied competitors on hand? The same situation exists at corner, where Shumate is one of six this spring; nine for fall camp and the 2012 season.
Shumate is a near-lock for two-deep duty if he remains at cornerback, but its highly unlikely he could beat out returning starters Bennett Jackson or Keivarae Russell, nor would he be ahead of a healthy Lo Wood, returning from Achilles surgery last August (Wood is purportedly full-go and ahead of schedule in his recovery).
A natural safety at 6'0" 200 pounds, Shumate has the skill set to push for a starting spot at safety. He could prove the best man for the job, but if the goal is to develop the most reliable two-deep at both corner and safety to survive the 2013 season, look for Shumate to continue to tutor on the perimeter and be the lead candidate for the nickel role exiting spring ball.
The Darkhorses Before the Horse
Yet to play a college down due to an August 2011 torn ACL and recovery period last fall, its seems unlikely junior (redshirt-sophomore) Eilar Hardy will outshine Collinsworth or Baratti (or Shumate) this spring. The same holds true for sophomore (redshirt-freshman) John Turner, who at 6'2" 207 was a tick behind his classmates in early development last season.
Both could surprise; both need notable springs to put their names in the mix with the more seasoned competitors entering August camp. A special teams role awaits both as they forge their way onto the field. That's the case for sophomore Chris Badger as well.
Also yet to debut is speedy safety prospect C.J. Prosise, who helped the varsity for a month early last season as a Dog linebacker when starter Danny Spond was lost, then for an undetermined time period, due to a migraine condition.
Prosise has the athleticism to win a starting job, if not this spring, by September -- but there's no doubt Baratti does too, and the latter has a leg up after a full season of varsity action at the position.
The fact remains that Prosise can move faster than most 6'2" 208-pound defensive backs -- he'll get a look.
But So Will…
Spring 2013 will help find an early pecking order at the position, but summer and especially August Camp will determine the two-deep competitors, and its a depth chart that could include prized incoming prospect Max Redfield.
The 6'2" 195-pounder is a four-star recruit per FOX Sports NEXT, a five-star elsewhere. None of that will matter when he hits campus, but its notable that Redfield has the athletic chops to contend early for a completely open spot, and with a trio, quartet, or quintet of competitors with precious few more meaningful collegiate snaps than he.
If Collinsworth is sufficiently recovered, and if Prosise can prove worthy of battling Baratti this spring, look for Shumate to play the 2013 season at cornerback and nickel, and for Redfield to throw his helmet in the ring an what should be an extended battle for playing time at a youth-filled, but well-stocked safety position.
Note: To read a preview of the team's defensive front, Click here.
Previews of each offensive unit in our spring series can be found at the links below:
The Next Wave: Running Backs
Searching for Six: Wide Receivers
Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends
The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback
Links Remain: Offensive Line
The battle for a spot alongside returning starter Matthias Farley promises to be fierce this spring…not to mention through the summer, August camp, and likely into the early fall.
Notre Dame's safety position is well-stocked for 2013. And 2014. And maybe 2015…