Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 46 of 99 PRESEASON 2016 47 BY LOU SOMOGYI D uring defensive coordina- tor Brian VanGorder 's first two seasons at Notre Dame (2013-14), inconsistent and/or confused safety play often has been blamed for not achieving collective success because of his voluminous, NFL-style playbook. He and the Irish will be challenged more than ever in that arena this year. The Aug. 21 dismissal from the team of 23-game starter Max Redfield left a void at free safety. Despite his roller- coaster career, the former five-star re- cruit had been playing, according to head coach Brian Kelly, at an "elite" level this preseason prior to another off-the-field transgression. Meanwhile, strong safety also has some fragileness to it. Junior Drue Tranquill is back after two ACL surger- ies on different knees sidelined him the past two years. His backup, sixth-year senior Cal transfer Avery Sebastian, has played a total of nine games (two starts) the past three years because of a litany of injuries. He was injured on special teams in last year's opener ver- sus Texas and sat out the remainder of the season. The options thereafter have zero col- legiate snaps on defense. Sophomore Nicco Fertitta at 5-8½, 185 pounds does not possess prototype safety size — and after that it's all true freshmen. Devin Studstill did make a strong impression as an early entrant last spring while challenging Redfield, but young players and the advanced Van- Gorder scheme have not mixed well overall. Consequently, VanGorder might have a decision to make on how much inventory to throw at a defense that is veteran-laden up front, but could be extremely young and vulnerable on the back end. "We've got our most athletic group overall," VanGorder said of the 2016 Fighting Irish defense. "I wouldn't comprise them relative to it being too big for them. … Our older guys are amazing. You talk to a guy like [senior Sam linebacker] James Onwualu, the football that he knows it's amazing. That I'm proud of." On the other hand, with seven true freshmen contending to see snaps on the back end, some compromise might be necessary to avoid information overload again. "There's guys in the [defensive] room that you've got to be careful with that," VanGorder admitted. "If it doesn't work for a high-trait player that can't learn, then yeah we either find his job simple or we cut down schematically with things. "We get better and better, then we don't need as much scheme maybe." The defense might need to use every safety net possible in 2016. CORNER MARKET The rock on the back end is senior cornerback Cole Luke, whose 26 career starts (opened all 13 games each of the past two years) are the most on the team. Yet even he saw his production fall from 15 passes defended in 2014 (the most at Notre Dame since long- time NFL star Dave Waymer in 1978) to seven last season. "It all comes down to how much I want it, I guess," Luke said. "We had the same amount of opportunities, I just capitalized on them more [in 2014]. "Last year there were a few situa- tions I was in position — I just didn't finish on the ball well. … Looking back on film and seeing, 'I actually could have made a play here.'" One theory Luke has had was that in game two at Virginia, a hard-fought 34-27 Irish win, Notre Dame gave up several huge completions (42, 38 and 34 yards), plus lost several jump-balls, that might have created a crisis in con- fidence. Yielding 83- and 75-yard TD passes to USC in an Irish win several weeks later exacerbated it and sub- consciously might have created some tentativeness. "We did give up a lot of explosive plays, so that could have been a reason why we were not as aggressive," Luke said. "One thing I learned — it's going to happen. That's football, so I can't re- ally let my aggressiveness slip. "You have to stay aggressive no matter what, that's just your position. That's what corners do. D-linemen mess up, [it's a] first down maybe. Linebackers mess up, 15-yard gain. But if you mess up as a defensive back, it's a touchdown. That's just something we have to understand." Luke was supposed to have teamed up with Fiesta Bowl starter Nick Wat- kins at corner, but a broken humerus suffered by Watkins in April became re-fractured the first week of August, leaving his status in doubt for the Texas opener. Sophomores Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman have vied for the left cornerback role, but Crawford has learned mainly nickel and was side- lined last year with a torn ACL. Cole- man primarily played on offense in high school. If Watkins' stay on the sideline isn't too extensive, Crawford's presence at nickel could aid the overall defense's ability to play stronger in man cov- erage, according to Luke. For now, though, Crawford's impact might be needed at left corner, before nickel. "The good thing is Shaun can cover but he's also a physical player," Luke said of the nickel role. "I think we can play nickel every single down regard- less of the down and distance. He's definitely adding another aspect to our defense." Numbers are not a problem for the Irish at cornerback. Limiting the inor- dinate number of big plays from 2015 (30 plays of 30 or more yards, rushing or passing) is. ROTATIONAL DEVICE When discussing Notre Dame's 2016 defensive line, the conversation often centers on rotation or tag teams. • At weakside end, juniors Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes are perceived as specialists, with the 255-pound Trumbetti inserted to provide a pass FRAGILE UNIT Setbacks in secondary leave small margin of error on defense Now a junior, Drue Tranquill is one of the expe- rienced defensive backs that must help lead the secondary. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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