Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 26, 2016

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

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Page 53 of 55

54 SEPT. 26, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED O ne of the "problems" that can come from coaching football at a place like Notre Dame is no matter how many setbacks are faced, a counter argument from the past can be presented to nullify a potential alibi. You want to say the offen‑ sive and defensive lines are young? Well, the 1988 na‑ tional champs had to replace the entire offensive and de‑ fensive lines from an 8‑4 team (plus Heisman winner Tim Brown), yet still won it all. You have to use a reserve quarterback? So did the 1943, 1966 and 1977 national champs. Even current head coach Brian Kelly can reference back four years ago now that his 2016 secondary is considered his least experienced, most vulnerable and potentially worst, on paper, in his seven seasons at Notre Dame. Or is it? Entering the 2012 campaign, Notre Dame no longer had its captain and first‑round safety Harrison Smith, graduated both of its cornerback start‑ ers (Robert Blanton and Gary Gray), and lost its top replacement at cor‑ ner, Lo Wood, to an Achilles injury. For good measure, by the third game, it lost another top safety, Jamoris Slaughter, to a season‑ending injury. Voila! The 2012 scoring defense still finished the 12‑0 regular season tops nationally and as the best scoring defense at Notre Dame in 32 years. Its defensive backfield included a true freshman starter at one corner (KeiVarae Russell), a true freshman at nickel (Elijah Shumate), a soph‑ omore safety who redshirted as a freshman wide receiver the previous year (Matthias Farley) and a former wide receiver recruit making his first start at corner (Bennett Jackson). The lone veteran with appreciable action was senior safety Zeke Motta. Fast‑forward four years to 2016, and Notre Dame's defensive back‑ field appears to be in dire straits again because of graduation (Rus‑ sell and Farley), injuries (sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford, junior cornerback Nick Watkins and senior cornerback Devin Butler) and dis‑ ciplinary action (senior safety Max Redfield and Butler). "Every year you're going to lose key players. You have to be able to prepare for that going into camp and know that somebody is going to be called upon to step up," Kelly said after the Nevada game. Notre Dame is now starting fresh‑ man Devin Studstill at one safety, and also has freshman Julian Love at nickel, sort of like Russell and Shu‑ mate in 2012. Two of the top backups at safety and corner are also freshmen in Jalen Elliot and Donte Vaughn. The other starting safety, junior Drue Tran‑ quill, had his first two seasons ended because of ACL tears, and he was benched by halftime of this year 's opening game loss at Texas. So was the other starting corner, sophomore Nick Coleman — but he no longer has Crawford, who was the team's top nickel back, to bail him out. With limited options, it has to be about continued player development. The 2012 secondary was able to find success because, first, it stayed healthy (other than Slaughter) and, two, it had a dominant front seven led by Heisman Trophy runner‑up Manti Te'o at linebacker. The trio of Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo and Kapron Lewis‑ Moore also combined for 25.5 sacks, which the defense col‑ lectively this year will be hard pressed to match. This year 's defensive line is not the 2012 front, but it doesn't have to be, because the back end in 2016 is capa‑ ble of being better. Senior cornerback Cole Luke is the Motta of this sec‑ ondary, except with much more experience as a 28‑game starter. Given that Studstill was an early entrant (unlike Russell and Shumate in 2012) and Tranquill has had previ‑ ous starting experience (un‑ like Farley in 2012), the 2016 defensive backfield is more experienced overall than 2012. The 2012 defense was able to pro‑ tect the secondary through its over‑ all scheme under former coordinator Bob Diaco. Now it is up to third‑year coordinator Brian VanGorder to ap‑ ply a similar formula. "We still were heavily dedicated to the front seven, and we will have to be the same way," Kelly said of com‑ paring 2012 to 2016. "We're going to have to stop the run. Now, we were much more of a cover two team [in 2012], so those corners were not locked up in as much man [coverage] — and there will be times we will have to be in less man coverage [in 2016] because of that and that's just the reality of it. "You can't play as much variety at nickel when you have a true fresh‑ man at nickel." At a place like Notre Dame, past standards and excellence always de‑ mand to find a way, fair or not. ✦ Past Success Often Looms In Present Setbacks THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Due to graduation, injuries and disciplinary action, the Irish find them- selves relying on a lot of young players in the secondary such as freshman safety Devin Studstill. PHOTO BY ANDREW IVINS

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