Notre Dame Football: Why the Secondary Is the Irish's Biggest Strength

Connor Killoren@@Connor_KillorenSenior Analyst IApril 9, 2013

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08:  Head coach Brian Kelly (R) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gives instructions to his team against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Purdue 21-17.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The worries and pessimism about Notre Dame's secondary stifled message boards and blogs around the web prior to the 2012 season. 

Where would the Irish go without former cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, as well as former safety Harrison Smith? 

The worrywarts and naysayers grew exponentially following cornerback Lo Wood's season-ending tear of his Achilles tendon. They grew louder and more bothersome when former strong safety Jamoris Slaughter suffered the same injury and fate as Wood. 

So there the Irish were—stuck with a converted receiver and a freshman at cornerback in Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, respectively. Slaughter's replacement, Matthias Farley, was, like Jackson, a converted receiver who redshirted as a freshman in 2011. 

It was true patchwork secondary at the time, and one that the critics said would inhibit the Irish from being a serious player in the BCS race. 

Those same talking heads shouldn't have been so quick to judge. 

Four months later, that same secondary had finished the season ranked 25th nationally in passing defense and 16th in passing-efficiency defense. 

Before the stat nerds have a fit, it's important to understand that the secondary was aided by a ferocious rushing defense that alleviated the pressure on what was at the time a raw, inexperienced bunch. 

In their first legitimate litmus test of the season against the Miami Hurricanes in a neutral site game at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Irish secondary yielded just 201 passing yards to a passing offense that finished the 2012 season ranked 25th nationally in the category. 

The immediate question was whether the unit would be capable of accomplishing the same feat against another quality passing offense. 

The Oklahoma Sooners presented that next challenge, and the Irish secondary was up to the task. 

Realizing at halftime that running the ball against that stiff Notre Dame front seven was no longer a feasible plan of attack, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops and co-offensive coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell placed the fate of the games in quarterback Landry Jones, who finished the evening with an astronomically high 51 passing attempts. 

Jones racked up 364 yards on those 51 attempts, resulting in an unimpressive average of just seven yards per attempt. The former starting quarterback, who is currently preparing for the NFL draft, wasn't gouging the Irish secondary for long gains. 

The effort of the Irish defensive backs was crucial in the end result being a 30-13 Notre Dame victory that sealed the program's place in the national title race. 

A date with the USC Trojans to end the season loomed large, but with quarterback Matt Barkley having suffered a separated shoulder during a loss to UCLA the previous week, the threat of head coach Lane Kiffin's passing offense had lost its fearsomeness. Barkley's replacement, redshirt freshman Max Wittek, was limited to just 186 passing yards in a 22-13 loss to the Irish. 

The lesson to be learned from those heroic performances from the Irish secondary is that head coach Brian Kelly's "next man in" philosophy truly is effective. We also learned that the secondary will enter the 2013 season as, perhaps, the team's biggest strength. 

Russell, Jackson and Farley will be returning starters, along with a host of other contributors. 

Sophomore Elijah Shumate, last season's nickelback, has switched back to his natural position of safety. He'll be joined at the position in the fall by heralded incoming freshman Max Redfield, who many believe will push for starting duties at free safety. 

At cornerback, Jalen Brown is making a push up the depth chart and will be joined by another heralded freshman, Cole Luke, in the fall. Whether Luke will be a candidate for minutes this season remains to be seen, though the infusion of talent can't be ignored. 

It has been quite the journey for a unit that was, essentially, cobbled together at the last minute last fall, and has since evolved into a surprising strength.