Notre Dame spring storylines: Safety rotation coming into focus

Notre Dame spring storylines: Safety rotation coming into focus
February 21, 2014, 10:00 am
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No unit has more stability entering spring practice than safety, which returns its four-man rotation from 2013 while adding Max Redfield and possibly Nicky Baratti to the mix. This is a deep unit, though it struggled at times last season -- but if competition breeds success, then this'll wind up being a pretty good group.

Expect plenty of interchanging between Notre Dame's five healthy safeties throughout spring practice, with Baratti likely sidelined as the Irish exercise caution on a guy who's undergone a pair of shoulder surgeries since January 2013. He'll get his chance to crack the rotation come August, and there's no guarantee the guys getting regular reps in March will get them in September.

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But Redfield is the player to watch here. The former five-star recruit has the highest upside of any safety on the roster, though he didn't see significant playing time last season until Notre Dame's bowl game (which he started). That was a signal he had finally grasped the intricate concepts of playing safety in Notre Dame's defense; coaches preach a high level of complexity in nailing down the role.

"Playing the deep safety for us is the most difficult thing a freshman could do, maybe outside quarterback," safeties coach Bob Elliott said last summer. "It's really a difficult situation because of the communication, the responsibility, and all the things that we do."

It may have took four months and 10 bowl practices, but Notre Dame coaches and players said in December that Redfield had got to the point where they could trust him communicating with the defense.

"I noticed him not questioning things, being demonstrative with calls -- you know, safeties, they have to make the calls," outside linebacker Jaylon Smith said after the Pinstripe Bowl. "Even if it's not right, every time you have to be very confident and he showed that."

Athletically, Redfield has the kind of upside to make a significant impact on Notre Dame's secondary. We should get an idea of how the coaching staff views his 2014 role in March based on the number of first and second-team reps he gets.

But those reps will come at the expense of someone with more experience than him. Matthias Farley started on 2012's 12-1 team and Elijah Shumate saw time as a nickel back that year. Austin Collinsworth is in his fifth year on campus and Eilar Hardy -- despite being suspended twice for a violation of team rules -- impressed coaches enough to crack the safety rotation last year.

That's a lot of bodies for a finite number of reps. Perhaps one of the safeties drops down into a slot/nickel back role, which has to be filled with Cole Luke competing for a starting cornerback job.

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While the additions of Baratti and Florida transfer Cody Riggs for fall camp could shake things up, the coming weeks should give an indication as to where Notre Dame's safety rotation is going.

Notre Dame's secondary may quietly become the strength of its defense, though how the safeties shake out will have a great influence on if that becomes true.