Notre Dame Football: What Irish Defense Must Focus on in Fall Camp
The core group that spurred Notre Dame to its first national championship appearance in 24 long, arduous years will begin its quest for another run at the title game 100 miles from the comforts of its own campus.
The Irish defense, along with the rest of the team, will spend the first four practices of training camp at Shiloh Park in Marion, Ind.
This should allow ample time for the unit to reflect on what allowed it such sustained success a season ago.
Head coach Brian Kelly, like every head coach across the country, will douse the media with copious amounts of coach-speak leading up to his team's season opener against Temple Aug. 31, a significant portion of which will be aimed at laying the 2012 season and its memories to rest.
But Kelly's defense would be wise to not let dust settle on the lessons learned during the 12-1 campaign that ended with a humbling 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
The back end of the Irish defense is in a position to be priority No. 1 during fall camp.
The brunt of the focus will be on a secondary that was a major concern at this time last year, but grew up in a hurry and eventually finished the season ranked 16th nationally in passing efficiency defense.
This time around, depth has become a good problem to have rather than an alarming worry.
The Irish lost cornerback Lo Wood early during last season's training camp to an Achilles tear that wound up holding him out of action for the entire season. It was a devastating blow to an already thin secondary, and matters were worsened by the loss of former strong safety Jamoris Slaughter, who suffered the same injury early on during Notre Dame's eventual 20-3 victory at Michigan State.
And that's the perfect segue into the first topic of issues to address during fall camp.
Settling the Free Safety Position
In retrospect, Slaughter's injury was a blessing in disguise.
Immediately and effectively filling his role was Matthias Farley, who was recruited as a receiver but made the move to safety following his redshirt freshman season.
The experience gained by Farley in the Irish's ensuing contests proved invaluable, as he'll assume the role and responsibilities of a leader this season. Who he'll be paired with on the last line of defense remains to be seen, though.
With former free safety Zeke Motta having been selected 244th overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2013 NFL draft, his vacant starting position is there for the taking.
Sophomores Elijah Shumate and Nick Baratti, along with freshman Max Redfield, are entrenched in a battle that is widely expected to be won by Shumate.
According to ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna, Kelly spoke highly of the 6'0", 213-pound safety during spring ball.
He is what we thought he was in terms of a tackler. He’s a very good tackler, a sure tackler, he’s physical. He can play the safety position. I think [safeties] coach [Bob] Elliott's done a nice job with the learning curve. That’s certainly what this is all going to be about, and picking up the nuances. Matthias [Farley] has done a very good job in helping him. But I think the entire defense is helping as well. So he’s our guy back there, and he’s got to continue to learn. The spring has been very good for him. He’s going to have to continue to take steps forward in the summer.
While there's no guarantee of Shumate having locked up the starting role, gaining clarity in regards to the rotation at free safety should be of significant importance during the next few weeks.
Who Wins the Battle Between Lo Wood and KeiVarae Russell?
Wood's aforementioned season-ending Achilles tear forced then-true freshman KeiVarae Russell into a starting role at cornerback, despite having been primarily recruited as a running back.
The announcement of Russell's position change was met with wide eyes during Kelly's introductory press conference last August, with the news only muddying the already murky state of the secondary.
Will Lo Wood or KeiVarae Russell win the starting job?
However, Russell impressed early and often, holding his own despite his youth and lack of experience playing as a defensive back.
While the consensus notion has been that Russell's impressive performance last season assured him of maintaining his title as a starter, Wood has been on the fast track to dispelling that thought. The Apopka, Fla., native is now fully healthy and will present fierce competition to Russell.
However, it should be noted that because of the depth the Irish have acquired at the position, both Russell and Wood will log meaningful minutes throughout the 2013 campaign.
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