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Where Notre Dame was & is: Safeties

UMass v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Nick Coleman #24 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks up a pass intended for Shaquille Harris #14 of the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Entering spring, Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety looked sparse. Moving senior Drue Tranquill to rover may serve the overall Irish defense well, but his absence will be noticed at the back-end of the defense if for no other reason than he would serve as another option among few.

It should be noted, Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko specifically did not say “no” when asked if Tranquill was still working some at safety at the end of the spring practice. It is unlikely Tranquill plays much at his former position, but Elko wanted to keep the option available.

With nine starts in his freshman campaign, logic indicated rising sophomore Devin Studstill would have the inside track on starting in 2017. Opposite him, a competition would come from juniors Nick Coleman (newly shifted from cornerback) and Nicco Fertitta and sophomore Jalen Elliott.

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Also shifting from cornerback, junior Ashton White would be counted on to provide some depth at the shallow position. Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson would be looked to for further depth, as well.

At least, that was the thinking: Studstill … then Coleman, Fertitta or Elliott … then White and Robertson.

Exiting spring, it seems Studstill will be counted on for depth. Rather than him solidifying a starting positon, it was Coleman who separated himself from his peers. Throughout spring, Irish coach Brian Kelly praised the converted corner. For example:

“We’re playing the safety position quite differently than we did before. Nick Coleman has been the guy that has done some really good things for us. He’s extremely athletic. We’re in the process of continuously developing his understanding of the defense.”

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At only 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman will need to develop a love for contact in order to truly fit into the field safety position. For that matter, the entire secondary—specifically the safeties—needed to re-embrace that aspect after last season. Elko has wasted no time in emphasizing that.

“For the most part, we all got our base too wide, and didn’t really step with power,” Elliott said after the Blue-Gold Game when discussing what specifically needed to change.

How has Elko gone about changing it? Per Elliott, the defense spent significant time in every practice on tackling. Elko echoed that assessment.

“That’s a huge emphasis for us,” he said the morning before the spring finale. “Anything you do a lot, you can get better at. At times, we’ve gotten better, at times we haven’t. A lot of tackling is fundamental body movement and footwork.”

Despite 14 practices and a public scrimmage spent working on tackling, the safeties—and the defense as a whole—will continue working on it up until the Sept. 2 season opener.

“Everything is a ways to go,” Elko said. “You build a house. The house is going to get done Sept. 2. You can’t move in before then. It’s not ready.”

Against Temple, who will move in alongside Coleman if it isn’t Studstill? Elliott, most likely, while Studstill backs up Coleman. It would not be the most shocking of events, however, if that alignment changes in fall camp or is altered on a game-by-game basis.

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“It’s a process. It’s all the same thing, trying to figure out what they do well, trying to figure out how to best utilize their skill sets,” Elko said. “We’ve done better with that as it’s gone on. We’ve evolved the package to fit who we’re going to be playing back there predominantly.”

After a strong spring, Robertson may have moved ahead of Fertitta to back up Elliott. Freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath will join the fray in the fall.

Kelly opened the door for sophomore cornerback Julian Love to provide some support at safety in specific situations. Well, Kelly did not specifically say Love, but he readily narrowed the field of options.

With five viable cornerbacks, moving the best coverage man into a back-end role would not necessarily expose the edges. This approach would only hold merit in obvious passing downs.

“When we’re talking about those situations, we’re talking about playing two-man and playing half over the top, a ball hawk, a guy that can play the ball in the air, a smart guy,” Kelly said. “That should eliminate like eight guys, so you guys can figure that out…

“There’s only going to be one guy that we can look to moving back there, and again, it will be in a specialty situation.”

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