Notre Dame Football: Putting the Best Secondary on the Field

James ToljCorrespondent IIApril 9, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Quarterback E. J. Manuel #3 of the Florida State Seminoles dodges the pas rush of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the Champs Sports Bowl December 29, 2011 at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Brian Kelly and the coaching staff at Notre Dame may need to do some shuffling in the secondary once the season begins.

As Fighting Irish fans know all too well, the position battle for the wide or field cornerback is still very much up in the air. 

On the shorter side of the field, Bennett Jackson has locked down the boundary corner spot. His stellar play during spring practice has impressed everyone.

With three safeties that each deserve to be on the field in the coaching staff's eyes (Zeke Motta, Jamarious Slaughter and Austin Collinsworth), moving one of those safeties to cornerback may be inevitable.

Josh Atkinson, Lo Wood, Jalen Brown and the newest addition to the position battle—former running back Cam McDaniel—have all shown signs that they will make solid defensive backs, but they might not be solid enough to start early in 2012.

Each of the players have something that they can contribute right now. Atkinson is a speedster. Wood has the most experience. Brown is extremely physical and McDaniel has shown himself to be a quick learner. But the most important thing that the coaching staff is looking for at cornerback, and every other position for that matter, has yet to be seen—consistency.

With Brian Kelly already stating that Collinsworth would be the first safety off the bench and the team's nickelback in the March 30th post-practice press conference, most fans assumed that the position battle at field corner was going to be a four-man race. 

Well, how about throwing Slaughter into the mix?  In fact, the coaches already have. Slaughter has been practicing at both safety and cornerback.

It is doubtful that Slaughter is auditioning for a role in dime and nickel packages (where he has played sparingly before and the coaches know he is capable), but he will be used more as an insurance policy.

Kelly and the defensive staff aren't completely sold on the four currently competing for the field corner spot, and if no one is able to grab the job (or if no one can play well once the season starts), don't be surprised if Slaughter drops down to cornerback while Collinsworth takes over Slaughter's safety duties (or if Collinsworth plays the wide corner instead of nickelback).

The coaching staff would love for Slaughter to remain at his current position, but the benefits of a switch may outweigh any disadvantages.

While keeping Slaughter as the last line of defense and a ball hawk at safety may sound ideal, having two lockdown cornerbacks in Jackson and Slaughter could be an even better plan (letting the other corners gain experience while playing in dime and nickel packages). And Slaughter could return to his safety role when and if the other players are ready.

It would certainly be a loss of playmaking potential at safety, but the position is deep and getting deeper.

Collinsworth, Motta, fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy, Eilar Hardy, walk-on to scholarship player Chris Salvi and Mattias Farley are six capable of playing safety. A number of talented incoming freshmen also project to become safeties as well (Elijah Shumate, John Turner, C.J. Prosise and possibly Nicky Baratti, to name four).

If one of the guys currently fighting for the wide corner proves he is ready (and they very well could before fall), then moving Slaughter or Collinsworth to cornerback wouldn't need to happen. The coaches could put Collinsworth in during nickel and dime packages (or when Slaughter moves to outside linebacker), and the Fighting Irish will have a tough defensive unit on the field. 

After the way Slaughter played at safety and linebacker last season, it might be a good idea to find a cloning machine rather than trying to move him. However, Notre Dame fans also know what having a weak link at cornerback can do to a defense.

So, the coaching staff will have to consider if a crucial loss at safety would be worth it considering the gain that would ensue at cornerback.

But with the way that many of the positions are destined to shape up—fluid—Slaughter would likely only move to cornerback if another player is struggling on a game-to-game basis.

Either way, the coaching staff probably won't make a move by the first week of the season.

The Irish head to Dublin, Ireland to take on Navy, a team that runs a ground-heavy option attack. Slaughter could stay at safety or play at outside linebacker as he did last season, but a move to cornerback against Navy wouldn't make sense (it would keep him away from the ball for the most part).

In Week 2 against Purdue and beyond, the decision as to who will play at cornerback becomes much more important.


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