Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Spring Preview: Defensive Back

March 1, 2017

There were a lot of issues with Notre Dame's defense last season. There were issues on all three levels at different times throughout the yearn, but no group struggled more early in the season than the defensive backs.

This was largely due to the absence of certain players. Injuries and suspensions decimated the depth chart and by mid-season the Irish were relying on five true freshmen to play a significant amount of snaps. That's never a recipe for success.

The good news is that there was improvement towards the end of the year. There were definitely some positives that can be taken into the spring. With those freshmen returning and some injured players potentially back as well, there should be a lot of healthy competition in March and April.

Sorting through the corners

The Irish didn't land any corners on signing day. If there is one positive that comes from that, at least it won't muddy the waters there more than they already are. It looks like Todd Lyght is going to have some options to choose from, but we just don't know who is going to rise to the top.

Julian Love would seem like a favorite to start at least one spot after playing a ton last year. He is the strongest all-around player out of the three freshmen from last season. Because he does so many things well, it would be surprising if he isn't one of the starters coming into spring. The only thing to not like about his game is his size, but he'll get plenty of practice matching up against big receivers in practice.

Both Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. showed some exciting flashes and it's likely they will compete against each other for the right to be one of the two guys out in the base defense. With Pride, it's about physical development and how far he has come in that area. He has the speed to run with anybody and already was showing some solid footwork.

Vaughn can match up better than others can, but with him it's about consistency. He can be that ideal big man coverage corner if he plays with consistent technique.

Just because those three finished playing the most snaps next to Cole Luke doesn't mean that there are guarantees that they will be 1,2,3 at corner this spring. Nick Watkins should be back from a year off after some complications with how his broken arm healed last fall. If he's healthy, then it's tough to know what to expect from him.

He made his first start in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State and was set to finally get more of an opportunity in 2016 only to have the injury derail him. It's his fourth year and we still don't know much about him. The former 4 star recruit needs a big spring to establish himself heading into the fall.

I don't expect Shaun Crawford, another player who missed last season due to injury, to be healthy enough to compete this spring. Not many recover that quickly from an achilles injury. But if we do see any of him, all eyes will be on how quick he is. He was a dynamic athlete before the injury even after recovering from his torn ACL. Is he still going to be the same guy after another major injury?

Lyght mentioned that both Ashton White and Nick Coleman may move to safety. Lyght also said Coleman may cross train at corner as well. I'm interested to see where Coleman is at because he clearly lost confidence and then his technique left with it. He's still a very good athlete who is only entering his second spring ball playing defensive back full time.

Who is going to stick at strong safety?

I'm not sure what kind of safety situation Mike Elko walked into when he left Bowling Green for Wake Forest, but I bet he wasn't facing a depth chart that was this uncertain.

The uncertainty comes from not knowing where everyone is going to fit quite yet. Drue Tranquill started every game at strong safety last season, but I don't think that same spot is his best position in this defense. I think he may be a better fit at Rover. Elko likes to creep his strong safety down to become an 8th defender in the box so he may see Tranquill fitting just fine at safety. We'll see where he is lined up to start the spring.

Spencer Perry or DJ Morgan may also be candidates to move to Rover, but it's not a given. We saw those two safeties the least out of the freshmen in fall camp last year. Perry was in South Bend last spring, but looked a bit overwhelmed. After a full year into the program, we will get a chance to see how much progress he has made and where his future fit is on the roster.

Morgan was someone Lyght had raved about as a scout team player when he was asked about him on signing day. I can't recall anyone predicting that Morgan was a prime candidate to be a breakout player this spring, but Lyght's comments are encouraging.

Devin Studstill is the freshman safety who played a ton last season, but a good chunk of the year he was fighting through an injury. I would expect him to be healthy to compete in the spring and Lyght said he would be moving to strong safety.

I'm anticipating that he will be the starter by the end of spring with Tranquill at Rover. Time will tell if works out that way.

The sleeper to watch at this position is White if he makes the move. He has the mentality and physical skill set to be a very good player at strong safety in my opinion.

Free safety still an enigma

After the Max Redfield era, I think most Notre Dame fans would simply love some stability at free safety. They could end up getting it started this season, but we're going to need to see some things this spring to get a good idea if it's possible.

It starts with Jalen Elliott. He is flipping to free safety according to Lyght and he'll need to make a big leap from what we saw last fall. He looked lost at times when he saw the field, which is understandable given he probably would have been better off taking a redshirt.

Athletically he looked the part, though. That is a good sign and if he picks up the defense well enough, he is going to be intriguing to watch.

Nicco Fertitta was someone who most felt would never play important snaps at Notre Dame. When given an opportunity last season, he did not look out of place at all. I loved seeing him fill versus the run.

With him it's always going to be about his limitations, though. Other undersized players have beaten the odds because of their speed and instincts. Is he at a high enough level in those two areas to become a strong player in coverage?

Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson is also someone they are slotting in at free safety. Hopefully he is just gaining valuable experience with his reps this spring because it wouldn't be a positive development to have another freshman playing a lot at safety in the fall.

Coleman and Watkins are two that I could see getting involved at free safety as well. Whether it's either of them or the others I mentioned, Notre Dame needs to come out of this spring feeling confident they have at least one quality starting caliber player at free safety this spring.

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