Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2017 Issue

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

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Page 30 of 63 MAY 2017 31 weighs 255 pounds. He's a fluid athlete with explosive speed off the edge. He was quite physical during the spring, even on snaps where he wasn't assignment sound. The talent that made Hayes a five- star recruit was on full display dur- ing the Blue-Gold Game, when he led the defense with seven solo tack- les, four tackles for loss and three sacks. Notre Dame's offensive tackles had a hard time handling his speed, and Hayes mixed in enough power moves to keep them off balance. He also showed his talent as a pass defender, covering the short zones well and limiting yards after the catch when the ball was thrown in his direction. GREER MARTINI SENIOR LINEBACKER Adding Martini to this list might seem confusing, considering that he has been a regular in the linebacker rotation since he arrived as a true freshman. He has made 10 starts dur- ing his career, with half of them com- ing against triple-option opponents. During his first three years, Martini racked up 116 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and five sacks, so he has been a productive player for the Irish. Despite his experience, though, he was passed on the depth chart by Te'von Coney. With Coney return- ing, it appeared Martini could once again be stuck into the role of rota- tion player and part-time starter. But Martini clearly has other plans, and he worked all spring to prove he's capable of being far more than a rotation player. Coney was healthy all spring and put together a quality performance in his own right, but Martini was outstanding. Martini's experience paid off, and he quickly picked up Elko's defense and proved himself to be assignment sound. He showed off a slimmed- down frame, which resulted in him playing with more quickness and ex- plosiveness. Those traits are vital in Elko's aggressive, downhill scheme. Every time the media was able to view practice, Martini was a stand- out. He made few mistakes and a lot of plays. That carried over into the Blue-Gold Game, when he registered four tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and two passes broken up. If he can carry that production into the fall, Martini and Morgan could provide the Irish with a pair of po- tent playmakers inside. NICK WATKINS SENIOR CORNERBACK The breakout for Watkins was sup- posed to come last spring, when the DeSoto, Texas, native was poised to replace KeiVarae Russell as the starter opposite Cole Luke at cornerback. Watkins got off to a good start, but a broken arm ended his spring and kept him out the entire 2016 season. With Watkins out, a trio of fresh- men — Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. — jumped into the rotation. All three had their moments, with Love emerging as an eight-game starter and Vaughn tying Luke for the team lead in passes broken up (six). In order to jump back into the start- ing lineup and hold off the young- sters — who all now have more ca- reer starts than he has — Watkins needed an impactful spring. That is exactly what the rangy Watkins provided. He played with a great deal of confidence all spring, matching up with and handling Notre Dame's receiving corps the best. He showed the length to handle the deep stable of tall receivers, and the speed and quickness to run with the smaller and faster wideouts. Watkins was steady all spring, showing off the ability to read the quarterback well and the willingness to come up and defend the perim- eter run and screen game. The 6-0½, 203-pounder took well to Elko's em- phasis on ball disruptions, making plays practice after practice. Watkins' playmaking spring car- ried into the Blue-Gold Game, when he intercepted a pass at the goal line and broke up a post throw to junior wide receiver Miles Boykin, while also making four solo tackles. NICK COLEMAN JUNIOR STRONG SAFETY The former cornerback began spring practice as the starter at free safety and handled his new position well. He showed off good range and ball-hawking potential early on, and he was solid as a tackler. When Tranquill moved down to rover on a full-time basis, Coleman replaced him at strong safety. Cole- man proved just as effective on the field side, a position that requires him to spend more time coming down into the box. It also matches him up more in coverage, where his background as a cornerback served him well. Moving to safety allows Coleman to keep everything in front of him, limit- ing the times when he has to flip his hips in coverage and having to read a receiver with the quarterback behind him. Those are the situations where he struggled as a cornerback last season. By keeping the receiver in front of him and the quarterback in his line of sight, he proved to be a playmaker at safety. Coleman showed off his playmak- ing ability in the Blue-Gold Game, breaking up a pass that resulted in an interception in the first quarter. Considering how important safety is to Elko's defense, a back-line play- maker emerging is a must. Coleman did that during the spring, but that must carry over into the fall. JALEN ELLIOTT SOPHOMORE FREE SAFETY Elliott benefitted from Coleman's tipped pass in the Blue-Gold Game, but he made a number of plays on his own throughout the spring. The Richmond, Va., native began the spring as the backup to Coleman, but when Coleman moved over to strong safety Elliott was inserted into the lineup ahead of classmate Devin Stud- still, who started nine games in 2016. Elliott is still learning the ins and outs of playing on the back end, hav- ing spent most of his prep career as a quarterback, but the more repetitions he received in the spring the more comfortable he became and the more plays he made. Elliott struggled at times in man coverage during one-on-one drills, but during team settings he handled himself quite well. His speed and agility allowed him to run with re- ceivers across the field in coverage, and his ball skills helped him become more disruptive against the pass. Late in the spring, Elliott was given more opportunities to come down into the box and be physical, and he looked quite comfortable with that part of the defense. He capped off his spring by tying Hayes for a team- high seven tackles, adding in an in- terception and breaking up one pass, in the Blue-Gold Game. Studstill will continue to push for the starting spot, and early enrollee freshman Isaiah Robertson displayed a knack for being around the ball, but Elliott was the better player this spring. If both he and Coleman carry over their quality play from the spring the Irish will have a chance to have much improved play on the back end of their defense. ✦

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