The Conductor

The Conductor

5th-year senior safety Austin Collinsworth is at home and in charge of the Irish back seven.

He's not the most experienced returning starter on the unit -- two fellow defensive backs, Keivarae Russell and Matthias Farley hold that honor.

He's not the most decorated -- Russell, linebacker Jaylon Smith, and defensive tackle Sheldon Day regularly populated pre-season watch lists this summer.

And he's not the most intriguing talent -- his backfield partner Max Redfield is the clear-cut leader in that regard.

But make no mistake, strong safety Austin Collinsworth is in charge of Notre Dame's defensive machinations when the unit takes the field. It's one of the few things that hasn't changed with first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's new scheme.

"There's definitely more pressure on the linebackers calls-wise," said Collinsworth of the 2014 season, "but the safeties are still kind of the guys that run the show. That pretty much carried over.

"Certainly overall it's more complicated schematically, there's more bluffs and stuff."

The bluffs and myriad schemes are welcomed by Irish fans that seek an aggressive approach after the method favored by former coordinator Bob Diaco. Be careful what you wish for: Diaco's groups were consistent (and at one point, dominant), ranking among the nation's top 30 in scoring defense each season: #23 (2010), #24 (2011), #2 (2012), #27 (2013).

Those squads had the advantage of veteran defensive linemen to lead the way, a luxury that afforded Diaco's defense the ability to play a gap-control style. Its back seven could thus play it safe, adhering to head coach Brian Kelly's initial mandate to "keep the points down."

The 2014 squad is both younger and far less experienced. They'll need to manufacture pressure rather than rely on the front four for a pass rush. Turnovers created, a weak point for Diaco's unit in both 2011 and 2013 (but notable strengths in 2010 and 2012), will be essential for survival.

“Coach D’s philosophy was great, but we never could really cause many turnovers just because we weren’t really aggressive," offered junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell of the new approach. "This one, there will be a lot of turnovers caused …(VanGorder) wants you to challenge every single route. Two-yard curl, he wants you on it. That’s his mind-set: Don’t give them anything."

Comforting Presence

Collinsworth is one of just five projected Irish starters, on either side of scrimmage, that will exhaust his collegiate eligibility at season's end. (Collinsworth, RG Christian Lombard, TE Ben Koyack, SDE Ishaq Williams, and part-time starter, RB Cam McDaniel.)

A standout performer as a rookie on special teams, and thereafter the program's Special Team's Player of the Year as a sophomore in 2011, Collinsworth is available to VanGorder in 2014 only because he missed his junior season of 2012 following shoulder surgery.

Collinsworth began as a wide receiver at the program but never doubted where his college football path would lead.

"I honestly saw myself as a safety the whole time," he admitted as the Irish opened training camp 2014. "I kind of thought the move was inevitable. (But) I take myself as a team guy. I told them, 'If you think I'm better off at receiver, I'll play receiver.'

"I was happy to end up (at safety)."

He's ending his career next to Notre Dame's best prospect at the position since eventual first-round NFL Draft Pick Harrison Smith hit campus under the previous regime. Sophomore Max Redfield possesses elite athletic ability, but Collinsworth is quick to point out his back line running mate possesses more than just burst and explosion.

"Now he corrects me sometimes too," Collinsworth warned when media questions indicated the fifth-year senior's job was to hold Redfield's hand. "We work together and we get it right. We really think of ourselves as a unit, if we're not working and clicking on all cylinders together, we're not going to be a good defensive backfield."

Collinsworth and Redfield are backed by a quartet of returnees, with junior Elijah Shumate the hard-hitting compliment to Collinsworth on the strong side, and senior Matthias Farley, a cornerback in the spring and listed as such on the team's fall roster, working behind Redfield at free safety.

"He's an extremely versatile guy. He can play pretty much anywhere you put him and he's a good football player," said Collinsworth of Farley. "They (the defensive staff) want to make sure he can play in as many spots as possible."

Add to that mix "swing" safeties Eilar Hardy and Nicky Baratti, and the Irish appear set with a sextet of safeties blessed with varied skill sets.

Collinsworth returns as the leader, both mentally and in terms of past production. His three interceptions led the squad last season -- and remarkably, he finished (a distant) third behind departed pass rushers Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt in QB hurries.

"Smart player, man. Smart player. You see it all the time. You look at Austin: again, not the most talented kid, but if you can get the defense lined up, and you can communicate, and you can think (quickly), you can play fast," said defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks.

"That's Austin Collinsworth. He's on it. He knows checks, He knows formations, he knows adjustments. He knows body position, he knows leverage, he has anticipation. He has all the things you need to be a solid safety when your athleticism is not unique."

Maybe not unique, but invaluable nonetheless.

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