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Where Notre Dame was and is: Safeties

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Will Swinney #22 of the Clemson Tigers runs with the ball against Alohi Gilman #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the fourth quarter during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

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Reaching the end of this series includes finishing with a position of certainty, if not depth. In time, that lack of depth could produce potential, but Notre Dame does not currently have the luxury of much in the way of backups at safety, though Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea does have the luxury of experience and talent on the back line.

The Cotton Bowl did not go well for the Irish. Few players fared well, but know who did? Senior safety Alohi Gilman managed 18 tackles (including the one pictured above) and two pass breakups against Clemson. His speed may not match up with the most elite in coverage, but Gilman’s physicality and nose for both the football and contact fit right in against the country’s best.

Knowing that, Notre Dame shelved Gilman for the spring. His playing style is not one to toss casually into spring scrimmages. When the ball is snapped, Gilman is not about to ease up simply because the ball carrier is in an inverse set of jersey colors; that would not bode well for either party. Furthermore, Gilman is a known commodity, as well as a valued one. Sitting him opened up more opportunities for others.

“We know what Alohi can bring,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring practices. “We’re going to protect him a little bit. … We’re going to move toward these younger players competing at the safety position.”

Of course, Gilman is only half the Irish puzzle. Senior Jalen Elliott joins him in his third season as a starter. His four interceptions in 2018 tied a high for a Notre Dame defensive back dating back to Harrison Smith’s seven in 2010.

“With both those guys, they’re incredible leaders, just natural leaders, both have the ability to be vocal and handle that as maturely and as well as any guys I’ve been around,” Lea said in early March. “They engage their teammates at a very personal level and it’s really fun to be around. We need for that.”

Gilman and Elliott will start on Labor Day and will set the tone for the Irish defense throughout the fall, both in tone and in action. That much is beyond reproach.

As such, this was a spring for their understudies, particularly sophomore Derrik Allen. Once Devin Studstill opted to transfer, only Allen and converted-cornerback and classmate D.J. Brown remained as depth options at the position.

When asked if the proverbial light has gone on for Allen, Lea hesitated in mid-April. He did not want to grant the premise of a binary system. Any young player’s light flickers on and off.

“It’ll be interesting to see how he finishes [in the Blue-Gold Game] and then into the summer and fall, where do we pick up with him?” Lea said. “... The compounded impact of the reps and the experience, once they remove themselves from it and restudy it and retool, when they pick it back up, there’s a deep expertise and a deeper awareness.”

Allen managed seven tackles in the spring finale, perhaps foreshadowing a solid understanding of how to utilize his physical gifts in the fall.

The depth concerns are shallow enough, even Doug Flutie felt comfortable asking Gilman about them during the Blue-Gold Game. Fortunately for Lea, Notre Dame will welcome two highly-recruited safeties this summer in Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon.

Though one, or conceivably both, could immediately be within the two-deep, Lea prefers to exercise caution in expectations.

“Any expectation for any of these guys coming in is going to be overblown and no one is going to be camera ready, so to speak,” he said in April. “Nor is anybody going to be counted out.”

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