Leading up to the 2012 season, I said that Jamoris Slaughter’s ability to lead Notre Dame’s young secondary would be critical to the team’s defensive success. Well, a popped Achilles, a true freshman running back playing cornerback, and a bunch of Bobby Diaco voodoo later and the Irish put together an excellent season on the back end of the defense.
Despite Slaughter being denied a sixth year of eligibility and Zeke Motta being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons, the Irish do return the bulk of their 2012 experience in the secondary. Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell will be expected to remain in their starting cornerback roles, while the return of Lo Wood from injury will add some much needed depth at the position. Matthias Farley, another young defensive convert who had a breakout 2012 season following the Slaughter injury, returns at one of the safety positions.
Sophomore Elijah Shumate, who played in all 13 games last year, will compete with incoming 5-star prospect Max Redfield for the last starting spot. Shumate was mighty impressive when he appeared in the nickel package but will be moving back into his more natural safety role this year. Redfield is the top secondary recruit the Irish have had in a number of years and should find a way to contribute early on even if he is unable to beat Shumate out for the starting role. There had been some discussion that Redfield could end up playing on both sides of the ball, but when it comes down to it I expect him to see the majority of snaps on defense.
Irish Player to Watch
Height/Weight: 6’1”, 185 lbs.
After freshman and sophomore campaigns where playing time was primarily concentrated on special teams, Jackson had an exceptional junior season at cornerback for the Irish. Starting all 13 games, Jackson was 3rd on the team in tackles with 65 (45 solo), had 4 interceptions, broke up 4 passes and had 1.5 tackles for loss. Maybe most importantly, he was key in turning a unit that was the most notable concern for Notre Dame fans into a unit that was one of the team’s strengths. As the first of the trio of offensive players-turned defensive backs to make the transition, Jackson set the tone and example for Farley and Russell to follow. While in retrospect it would have been nice if he had sat out his freshman year or had moved from wide receiver to corner earlier in his career, Jackson is primed to make his final season in South Bend his most memorable.
Enemy Player to Watch
Position: Free Safety
Height/Weight: 6’2, 205 lbs.
A second or third team All-American (depending on if you ask the AP, Sports Illustrated, or Phil Steele), Reynolds enters his senior season with lofty expectations after being named a first team pre-season all American by Phil Steele and Athlon Sports and being named to the Nagurski Award and Thorpe Award watch lists. Reynolds led the Trees with 6 interceptions in 2012 (most by a Stanford player since 1973) including 3 returned for touchdowns. In addition, his 301 interception return yards were just 1 yard short of the NCAA single-season record. Oh, and we can’t forget his game altering 80-yard interception return against UCLA in the Pac-12 title game ended 1-yard short of being his 4th touchdown of the season. While it may be unreasonable to expect those kinds of turnover numbers from Reynolds again, especially considering quarterbacks will be more cognizant of keeping the ball out of his hands, he has proven to be a game changer in the Cardinal secondary and we will need to hope Tommy Rees doesn’t float any ducks in his direction.