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When Notre Dame's defense played its best, it was because it had a quality safety anchoring the secondary. Harrison Smith provided that stability for two seasons, transforming himself from doghouse dweller to hard-hitting, first-round safety.
Zeke Motta anchored the Irish secondary in 2012, providing another hammerhead in Bob Diaco's secondary capable of quarterbacking the coverage schemes while also providing excellent run support.
But the Irish defense struggled last season when they slid Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth into the starting lineup, and a position that was one of the most productive on the Irish roster in Brian Kelly's first three seasons was content merely just getting by.
To Kelly's credit, he didn't wait until the offseason to make plans for 2014. He pushed freshman Max Redfield into the starting lineup, giving the blue-chip recruit the month of December to learn the job then letting him learn on the fly against Rutgers.
In the spring, they shipped Farley outside to cornerback. With Redfield looking like the perfect fit at free safety, Collinsworth has been given the first chance at winning the strong safety job. But even though the fifth-year senior played in all 13 games and started 11 last season, expect him to be challenged from the beginning of fall camp.
Both Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy have to feel like they can win a starting job. For Shumate, it means putting a rough sophomore season behind him and getting back to being the player that contributed key snaps as a nickel cornerback in 2012. At 213 pounds, Shumate has the ideal size for a strong safety. He'll also be able to focus on learning a job better tailored for his skill set, with new coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense needing a strong safety who can blitz, support against the run and play man coverage.
Hardy is a wild card in all of this. The senior took a while to recover from a knee injury suffered during his freshman season, but was incredibly productive when he finally got his chance to play last season. A big hitter with a nose for the football, Hardy is another athletic option who should challenge Collinsworth for playing time.
Making things more interesting is the classification of junior John Turner and sophomore James Onwualu. Turner went from afterthought to situational starter in spring football, sliding down to a linebacker position on passing downs after being buried on the depth chart. Onwualu played in 12 games as a freshman receiver before moving to defense in the spring. Both could technically be classified as linebackers, but will likely see playing time on passing downs.
Expect freshman Drue Tranquill to do his best to force his way onto the field as well. Recruited without a true position, Tranquill could add some heft to the position while running well enough to help in coverage.