Secondary picture still fluid as spring closes
Renee Griffin | Friday, April 15, 2016
The images of Ohio State running and passing all over an injury-wracked Irish secondary in the Fiesta Bowl have hardly faded, making the open competitions at the cornerback and safety positions this spring all the more significant.
By the end of 2015, Notre Dame’s ranks of defensive backs were so depleted that senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. got time at nickel back. The departures of top cornerback KeiVarae Russell, starting safety Elijah Shumate and team captain and safety Matthias Farley would leave the Irish even thinner, were it not for the return of several veterans from injury and the additions of some fresh faces.
Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght has expressed confidence in the depth and competence of the array of players who look to solidify a major role in the secondary in their Blue-Gold game showings.
“Everyone is challenging for the starting spots and we know we’re going to have to play eight guys deep across the board, especially with our nickel and dime package,” Lyght said. “Everyone is going to have a hand in making this team successful.”
Senior cornerback Cole Luke is fighting to resume his starting role, but he is being pushed by younger cornerbacks like sophomores Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman and junior Nick Watkins.
Watkins filled in for the injured Russell and senior Devin Butler on the outside against the Buckeyes and will be back in 2016, though a broken left humerus sustained in early April will prevent him from returning to practice until summer workouts begin in June.
Before the injury, Watkins had a confident mindset despite stiff competition around him, he said.
“I’m a starter. In my mind I’m a starter. That’s how I feel, that’s the confidence you have to have to play the position,” Watkins said. “We’re all challenging each other. …We encourage each other. Every rep is a competition, every play is a competition.”
Crawford seemed poised to start at nickel as a true freshman before tearing his ACL last preseason and is taking reps on both the inside and outside, along with Luke.
“Crawford’s playing both the nickel and the corner at this point. He really excels on the inside because of his football intelligence,” Lyght said. “We moved Cole inside so he’s picking up the nickel position. I think Cole is one of our smarter players in the back end, and he’s doing a great job of moving inside and understanding how we do things and where we want him to play.”
Crawford is one of three defensive backs who return after suffering season-ending injuries early on in 2015. The other two are junior safety Drue Tranquill and graduate student safety Avery Sebastian.
Tranquill was the starter opposite Shumate before he tore his ACL for the second time in two years when he jumped and landed awkwardly while celebrating a pass breakup against Georgia Tech in the third game of the 2015 season.
“He’s an incredible man and athlete,” senior safety Max Redfield said of Tranquill. “The whole team loves him. He gives everything he has. … He’s a really intelligent guy as well, so we want him to be at his full health and then get him back on the field.”
Redfield is also among the crucial returning veterans. Though he was notably absent in Ohio State’s 44-28 rout of Notre Dame in January after violating team rules, he figures to help Luke and Tranquill fill the leadership voids created by the departures of Farley and Russell.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Redfield said. “I’m comfortable not being a leader, but I also love stepping up and having my voice being heard, and leading by example is something that I need to do.
“… [The younger players’] heads are kind of spinning, but we’re putting more time in than we ever have as a secondary, and we’re learning a lot together, so it’s great.”
Early-enrollee Devin Studstill is also making noise in practice at the safety position. Lyght said that with all spots up for grabs, even veterans like Redfield have been pushed by his performance.
Six more freshmen defensive backs will join Studstill in bolstering Notre Dame’s depth in the secondary in 2016.
“We have some guys that are going to come in this fall that are going to be able to make an impact right away,” Lyght said. “We have to put the most athletic guys that give us a chance to make plays on the back end and guys that can prevent big plays so we can be successful defensively.”
Lyght said a major goal for this new group will be to eliminate many of the big plays that the secondary allowed in 2015 and continue to get off the field on third down.
“We gave up too many explosive plays,” Lyght said. “We have to do a better job of competing at the end of the route. We played a lot of split-safety defense, a lot of open defense, quarter-quarter half. This year, we might close them in a bit more, challenge on the perimeter.
“… I think we were one of the top-15 defenses in the country on third down. If we can get inside the top 10, we’ll be a defense to be reckoned with.”