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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 16 KJ Wallace, junior safety, possible starting nickel back

KJ Wallace 2021

Listed measurements: 5-foot-10 ¼, 189 pounds.2021-22 year, eligibility: A junior, Wallace has four seasons of eligibility remaining, as comical as that still sounds.Depth Chart: Wallace typically works at safety, but star junior Kyle Hamilton hardly needs a backup and that will shorten Notre Dame’s defensive backfield rotation. That may have been part of the reason Wallace spent much of spring practices trying his hand at nickel back, where he could very well be the Irish starter.Recruiting: Wallace committed way back in January of 2018, waiting 10 months before National Signing Day, but never wavering during that time despite Stanford, Penn State and Tennessee pursuing the three-star prospect.

Capitalism does not need to be complicated, even when applied to the notoriously hardly-for-profit industry of media. Presumably, Wallace and his podcast co-hosts will sell advertising based on downloads, perhaps not the most lucrative result, but one that should pay for some meals all the same.

Even before he arrived at Notre Dame, Wallace had the look of a possible nickel back.

“Wallace will also have a chance at making a quick impact at nickel back, especially if (former defensive back Avery) Davis does not catch on quickly. (Shaun) Crawford may be back, but there are so many questions at hand with his career it is best to simply worry about that separately. If he is not, Wallace could have the inside track to starting at a position with increasing importance in college football.”

Wallace arrived in South Bend as a cornerback, but he moved to safety before the 2020 season after appearing in four blowouts as a freshman.

A groin injury quietly hampered Wallace throughout much of 2020, preventing him from getting a genuine chance at breaking into the safety rotation as the Irish roster ebbed and flowed through pandemic protocols. He did appear in three games, making three tackles, all in the 52-0 blowout of South Florida.

2019: 3 games; 1 tackle.2020: 3 games; 3 tackles with one for loss.

Between Hamilton and seniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown, the safety responsibilities are expected to be handled for Notre Dame in 2021, but the nickel back question remained entering this spring. Maybe one of them would move up in those situation packages, or perhaps senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy would move into the slot despite his penchant for struggles in one-on-one coverage.

In stepped Wallace.

“KJ Wallace has had a great spring,” Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman said in mid-April. “He’s shown up and he continues to show up. A guy that can play nickel, a guy that can play safety.”

Notre Dame hardly needed a nickel back last year, not with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah perfecting his role as a linebacker/defensive back hybrid. And the Irish may lean on the Rover again in 2021 via junior Jack Kiser or senior Paul Moala, but more likely, Freeman will turn to a traditional defensive back on third downs.

Wallace’s physical style despite his small stature makes him a prototypical nickel back. He wants to hit someone, and hit them hard, so playing him near the ball fits his comfort levels, but he is also quick enough to get into and out of breaks while covering a slot receiver.

Wallace should end up Notre Dame’s nickel back. If he loses the position to Bracy to start the year, the odds seem decent that the Irish will call on Wallace in October all the same.

It is not necessarily a glamorous position, but as Crawford often showed, it can be an impactful one.

DOWN THE ROADWhile Freeman may be a new coordinator at Notre Dame, the flexibility Clark Lea showed in using nickel backs and Rover linebackers as talent provided was not a unique approach specific to Lea. Modern defenses need either a linebacker who can cover slot receivers or a defensive back who can tackle running backs.

That is both the dichotomy and the necessity of defensive personnel in today’s college football.

If Wallace can prove himself to be a defensive back capable of stopping the run, much like Crawford was even after his body slowly betrayed him, then that will come at the expense of the Irish linebackers. (They will not be entirely benched, just more of a timeshare.) And in that situation, Wallace could be a defensive contributor through 2023.

Notre Dame is slowly building up its cornerback recruiting, so Wallace may not get a thorough shot at a leading role, but a prominent nickel back can have just as much effect.

Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 62 Marshall guard Cain Madden transfers to Notre Dame, likely 2021 starter
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman
No. 56 Howard Cross, junior defensive tackle
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, junior defensive tackle
No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?
No. 52 Zeke Correll, junior, starting center
No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Devin Aupiu, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Alex Peitsch and No. 65 Michael Vinson, Irish long snappers, both needed
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, eventual record-holder in games played
No. 40 Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year kicker, using the pandemic exception
No. 38 Jason Onye, incoming and raw freshman defensive end
No. 37 Joshua Bryan, incoming freshman kicker
No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, junior defensive end
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker
No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, senior cornerback, possible nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, junior linebacker
No. 26 Clarence Lewis, sophomore cornerback, second-year starter
No. 25 Philip Riley, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, speedy sophomore running back
No. 24 Jack Kiser, junior linebacker, onetime pandemic hero
No. 23 Litchfield Ajavon, junior safety
No. 23 Kyren Williams, junior running back
No. 22 Logan Diggs, incoming freshman running back
No. 22 Chance Tucker, freshman cornerback
No. 21 Lorenzo Styles, early-enrolled freshman receiver
No. 21 Caleb Offord, sophomore cornerback
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, senior running back, coming off an offseason with a smirch
No. 20 Justin Walters, early-enrolled freshman safety and likely early special teams contributor
No. 19 Jay Bramblett, junior punter
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, senior defensive end
No. 18 Joe Wilkins Jr., senior receiver, team favorite
No. 18 Nana Osafo-Mensah, junior defensive end, coming back from a knee injury
No. 17 Jack Coan, graduate quarterback, Wisconsin transfer
No. 17 Jordan Botelho, sophomore defensive end, full-speed at all times
No. 16 Deion Colzie, incoming freshman receiver with both speed and leaping height

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