SOUTH BEND – It remains to be seen how well the Notre Dame defensive secondary plays in 2017, but what won't be an issue is the depth that the Fighting Irish have.
Notre Dame listed 12 defensive backs on its depth chart for the final game of the 2016 season and nine of those players, as well as cornerback Shaun Crawford, return in 2017.
All of these bodies have created competition among the positions, which has also led to the Irish coaches making an adjustment.
The Fighting Irish will play their annual Blue-Gold spring football game Saturday at 12:30 p.m. (NBCSN).
After spending his career at cornerback through two seasons, junior Nick Coleman has been given an opportunity to play free safety by Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly, who has liked what he has seen from Coleman this spring.
“I think that Nick Coleman has convinced us that he is there to stay,” Kelly said recently.
Coleman will compete with Jalen Elliott (who could flex to strong safety, as well), Nicco Fertitta and possibly incoming freshman Isaiah Robertson at the position next fall, but it has been Coleman who has been getting a lot of repetitions with the starters over the past few weeks.
“We would certainly put somebody there and give him first team reps if we thought he could help us win a championship,” Kelly said. “We wouldn't necessarily put somebody there if we were just trying to get out of the game.”
Coleman earned a pair of starts last season and played in 11 games, but had fallen deep into the depth chart at corner by the end of the season. However, he has shown the athleticism needed to make an impact at safety so far this spring.
“Our evaluation of Nick is 'Can he be a dynamic player at that position,'” Kelly said. “We all know that he possesses the athletic ability. We wanted to see if he could translate the other skills (needed) at that safety position, i.e. tackling and picking up the scheme in terms of how you play off of the hash. I would say that based upon what we've seen, he won't be moving to another position.”
Devin Studstill and Elliott, either one, could line up at strong safety, as could returning starter Drue Tranquill (when he isn't lining up at the rover linebacker spot). If you throw Coleman into the mix, that is a lot of experience and bodies that should help the Irish defense play better than it did during a struggling 2016 season.
At this point, Kelly doesn't need to know who the starters will eventually be, nor does he.
“For me to tell you today,” Kelly expounded, “that (Coleman) is our starter, he is our guy, we need more body of work. But he won't be moving anywhere else.”
New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko has been emphasizing the specifics of playing fundamentally sound football with the Notre Dame defenders, safeties included, all spring. As Kelly noted, Coleman needs to be able to tackle well at the safety position, but the coaches are confident that his pass coverage skills are where they need to be.
“he is somebody that can really track the ball,” Kelly said. “He's a guy that can play the middle of the field and can really cover some ground and some space.”
That ability to defend the pass will be sorely needed. Notre Dame ranked behind 101 other FBS programs in pass defense from a percentage completed standpoint a year ago, as the Irish allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 62 percent of their passes.
“When you look at our safeties,” Kelly said, “we've got some physical safeties, certainly. But profiling somebody that has corner skills, playing the safety position, you can imagine that he brings a different skill set to the position.”
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