When Notre Dame takes the field this fall, it will be without key safeties Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. Motta matriculated after a stellar season with the Irish and Slaughter was denied a sixth year of eligibility after tearing his Achilles tendon in the third game of last season.
While it was the defensive line—and some of its players—that caught all the headlines last season, the Irish secondary quietly handled the backfield reasonably well, leaving Notre Dame ranked respectably at 25th in the nation in passing defense.
It is worth noting that passing defense was the weakest area of Notre Dame's defense, however. The Irish ranked 11th in rushing defense, second in scoring defense and eighth in red-zone defense—making the passing defense the odd man out at 25th nationally. Not that being ranked 25th in the nation is a horrible thing, but it is definitely an area that opposing offensive coordinators will look to exploit next fall, particularly now that the senior leadership has graduated.
How does this relate to the safeties? Well, as they are the last line of defense in the backfield—hence the term safety—they will play a key role against the passing game.
Returning safeties Matthias Farley, Nicky Baratti and Austin Collinsworth will have their work cut out for them this fall.
Farley had an incredible season in 2012, taking over the starting safety position after Slaughter was injured in Week 3 against Michigan State. He is strong against the run but has room for improvement against the pass. During the game against Stanford last fall he had an interception that he returned for 49 yards, but had just one pass defensed and no passes broken up in his 11 starts.
Baratti established himself as a dependable reserve safety last season after Austin Collinsworth was knocked out for the year following shoulder surgery, and Slaughter injured his Achilles tendon. The Texas native played in all 13 games, finishing with eight tackles and one interception against Michigan in the end zone.
The fate of senior Austin Collinsworth is still somewhat uncertain. According to Frank Vitovitch of uhnd.com, Collinsworth has been cleared by doctors following shoulder and back surgery that kept him off the field last season, but where he will land on the depth chart after a year out of the game is still unclear.
Although he will not arrive on campus until next summer, there is much speculation that 5-star ranked safety Max Redfield will immediately push for playing time, but whether head coach Brian Kelly will redshirt him or not remains to be seen. Redfield is strong against the run, and he also played wide receiver in high school, so he is adept at reading the quarterback's eyes and has great hands, making him perfect for that all-important pass defense.
All in all, the safety position should be one of the more interesting to watch as the offseason unfolds. Farley and Baratti have enough experience to—at minimum—maintain the status quo, but the arrival of Redfield should be highly anticipated by Irish fans. I am inclined to believe Kelly will get him out on the field this fall. Whoever ends up filling the safety spots, they will need to continue being strong against the run and lock down the pass defense to keep the Irish at championship level.