Notre Dame unit preview: Defensive backs

Notre Dame unit preview: Defensive backs
July 29, 2014, 2:30 pm
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In six words or less: Best, deepest defensive unit

Projected starters: KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield
Rising up the depth chart: Max Redfield
Arrivals: Cody Riggs, Nick Watkins
Departures: Bennett Jackson, John Turner (position switch)

Looking back

Nowhere did Bob Diaco's bend-but-don't-break defense manifest itself more than in Notre Dame's secondary over the last four seasons. Notre Dame's passes defended numbers (interceptions + passes broken up) were low from 2011-2013: 49, 50, 45 -- the hallmark of a defense that didn't take many chances. KeiVarae Russell's nine passes defended (8 PBUs, 1 INT) in 2013 were the most for a Notre Dame cornerback under Diaco, a total which wasn't even among the top 100 in college football last season.

[MORE: Notre Dame aims to put Matthias Farley in a better position]

That's not to say giving 10-yard cushions to opposing receivers didn't work. No team allowed fewer plays of 20 or more yards in 2013 than Notre Dame, and the Irish were in the top five in preventing those big-chunk plays in 2011 and 2012 as well. But opponents went from converting 34 percent of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns in 2012 to 52 percent in 2013 -- still a good rate for the Irish defense, but a spike that heavily contributed to Notre Dame allowing 10 more points per game in 2013 than in 2012.

2014 outlook

Under Brian VanGorder, Russell has an excellent opportunity to take off as one of the better cornerbacks in college football. Coaches feel the junior is ready for the challenge of playing more press coverage and taking more chances on deflections and interceptions, so expect to see him pick off far more than the one pass he did in 2013.

[MORE: Kerry Cooks' challenge spurs KeiVarae Russell's growth]

While Russell is the star of the unit, there's a good blend of talent and experience surrounding him. Max Redfield finally looks comfortable at safety and will get a chance to showcase his five-star talent this fall. Cody Riggs comes from Florida as a fifth-year graduate student and will battle talented sophomore Cole Luke for the starting spot opposite Russell. Fellow fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth likely will start at safety alongside Redfield, with Elijah Shumate, Eilar Hardy and Nicky Baratti forming a solid unit of reserves at safety. And Matthias Farley will slide down into a nickel role, one which coaches feel better suits his talents.

Of course, no unit operates in a vacuum -- the defensive backs still will need help from the defensive line and linebackers. But from a talent and depth standpoint, Notre Dame's defensive backs enter 2014 as VanGorder's best unit.

They said it

"Sky's the limit for me, and it shows I really can be the best corner in the country and it just takes a lot of work to do that." -- KeiVarae Russell

More unit previews

Quarterbacks | running backs | wide receivers/tight ends | offensive line | defensive line | linebackers