The biggest question mark and hole to fill on the depth chart for Notre Dame this offseason will be the position of safety.
Going into spring camp next month, the Irish will have only one veteran with any significant playing time at safety and it is believed both positions are completely up for grabs.
With Tom Zbikowski, David Bruton, and the recently graduated Kyle McCarthy, Notre Dame has had a few very good safeties in the recent past.
In order to field a strong defense in 2010, Brian Kelly will want to fill this position with the best available options. More to the point, he will be well served to lock up an elite prospect at this position in his next recruiting class.
Here are the top 16 candidates to play safety for the Fighting Irish in 2010:
Austin Collinsworth (Freshman) WR/S
The son of former NFL stand-out Chris Collinsworth, the young Austin was a great all-around athlete in high school who played safety, wide receiver, and quarterback. It may be a year or two before Kelly begins finding him a position, so the chances of him starting at safety are fairly low as of now.
Lo Wood (Freshman) CB
With the body type of a smaller cornerback, Wood will probably stay at his natural position. However, with such a depleted depth chart at the safety position, it is not inconceivable that he could impress the coaching staff enough to get on the field at some point next year.
Spencer Boyd (Freshman) CB
Like Wood, Spencer Boyd has the body type of a smaller cornerback and will need to bulk up in order to see some playing time in the immediate future. However, he has impressed with his speed and play making ability, so we can’t rule him out just yet.
Chris Badger (Freshman) S
Badger joins Wood and Boyd as early enrollees this spring which will undoubtedly help their chances of seeing the field sooner rather than later. Badger is bigger than the other freshman defensive backs and safety is his more natural position. It still may be a long shot for him to start in 2010, but it could happen.
John Goodman (Junior) WR
The athletic Indiana product had some moments of brilliance last year in his limited action as receiver and wildcat quarterback and may very well stay on the offensive side of the ball. Still, Goodman possesses great size and speed and could be an ideal candidate for safety with his soft hands.
Shaq Evans (Sophomore) WR
Besides Michael Floyd, Evans is probably the most highly regarded recruit at the receiver position to come to Notre Dame in some time. As a freshman he played very little, had some ups and downs, and struggled with being away from his native California. Coach Kelly will probably want to keep the budding star on offense, but a move to safety would give the team an instant athletic freak roaming the defensive backfield.
Deion Walker (Junior) WR
Walker has been a bit of a mystery over his first two seasons in South Bend after coming to Notre Dame with a decent amount of fanfare. Since he hasn’t logged many minutes at wide receiver, he could be a prime candidate to move to safety with three years of eligibility left. With his mix of size and speed, Walker could start right away for the Irish in 2010.
Jonas Gray (Junior) RB
After a freshman season that saw Gray become a very capable backup, the 2009 sophomore campaign ended in a step back for the powerful runner. He doesn’t have ideal size or speed to play safety, but Gray has quickly found himself squeezed out of carries at running back and could fall as low as third or fourth string in 2010. He may be a bit of a project, but Kelly might consider making the move.
Cierre Wood (Sophomore) RB
Here’s a player who was one of Notre Dame’s biggest running back recruits over the past decade, but did not see the field as a freshman in 2009. We’re left wondering what this guy has, but all indications are that he is supremely talented. He doesn’t have ideal size to play safety, but with four years of eligibility left and at least two runners ahead of him on the half back depth chart, Wood may make the switch.
E.J. Banks (Sophomore) CB
Banks did not play as a freshman last season, but could be ready to contribute significant minutes in the defensive backfield in 2010. Even though he is undersized, Banks is a tremendous athlete with a variety of skills. With a few veteran corners ahead of him on the depth chart, Kelly could move him to safety.
Gary Gray (Junior) CB
Although he didn’t start for most of the season and played fewer minutes than three others at his position, Gray might have been Notre Dame’s most consistent corner in 2009. He has all the tools to be a great corner, but those same tools would also make him a great safety as well. With a good amount of eligibility left, Gray might be moved to safety if Coach Kelly solidifies the depth at corner.
Robert Blanton (Junior) CB
After a pretty successful freshman campaign, Blanton took a step back last season and seemed to lose that special swagger and playmaking ability from 2008. Although he will probably lock down a starting spot at corner, Blanton has the length that could turn him into a great safety for the Irish. Some improved tackling and added weight could make him an ideal candidate for the switch.
The Leaders in the Clubhouse
Dan McCarthy (Junior) S
The younger brother of graduating and fellow safety Kyle McCarthy, Dan has been slowly making a name for himself in South Bend while pushing for playing time. McCarthy actually came to Notre Dame with more fanfare than his older brother, so it isn’t crazy to think that he will someday start at safety for the Irish.
Jamarious Slaughter (Junior) S/CB
Slaughter found himself inserted into the lineup last season and played the first significant minutes of his career in 2009. He replaced Harrison Smith at safety for the latter part of the season and although he didn’t make much of a difference, he didn’t play terrible. With another offseason under his belt, Slaughter could find himself starting at safety from day one.
Zeke Motta (Sophomore) LB/S
One of the top recruits from last season, Motta played a decent amount on special teams and mop up duty on defense as a freshman. Known to be one of the strongest and best conditioned athletes on the entire team, he will be one of the favorites to start at safety in Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame. His size has been trending towards linebacker, but if his speed can be improved Motta will probably start for the next three years at safety.
Harrison Smith (Senior) S/LB
A week ago, Brian Kelly let it be known that Smith was having a tremendous offseason and would be moving back to safety next season. Given his experience, it is hard to believe he won’t be the top safety all year long. Still, Smith struggled mightily in 2009 after making the transition from linebacker to safety, making many wonder if he has the tools to succeed at safety. Perhaps with a less complicated defensive system and the encouragement and support of a new coaching staff, Harrison Smith will flourish.