Clark Lea likes to keep an eye on offensive skill players buried on the depth chart. That’s where he can find future projects for defensive position switches.
When head coach Brian Kelly suggested to the defensive coordinator that running back and former quarterback Avery Davis could be made available to the defense, Lea was thrilled.
“I’ve kind of been secretly watching him work,” Lea said. “He embodies what a humble worker is. The kid is remarkable. He has physical skills. He has speed. Just more his approach, his mindset — he’s such a defensive-natured kid.”
The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Davis has moved to cornerback in the latest attempt by the Irish coaching staff to find a role for him. In less than two years on campus, he’s shifted his focus from throwing touchdown passes to preventing touchdown passes.
“It’s like getting a free-agent signing,” Lea said. “All of a sudden you enhance your skill at a position.”
Where exactly Davis fits in at cornerback remains to be determined. He’s being trained to play on both sides of the field. Kelly even suggested Davis could play inside at nickelback.
The secondary certainly has room for more help at cornerback. This spring, senior Troy Pride Jr. is the only healthy cornerback with more than one year of experience at the position.
Graduate student Shaun Crawford (knee) and senior Donte Vaughn (shoulder) are sidelined this spring recovering from injuries. That will give Davis plenty of opportunities to learn the position this spring alongside a sophomore class — Houston Griffith, TaRiq Bracy, Noah Boykin and DJ Brown — fighting for playing time.
The development of Davis will require patience, Lea said.
“A lot of the things that he’s doing well right now are just basic athletic things,” Lea said. “If the ball’s thrown in front of him, he breaks and closes space. A screen thrown on the perimeter, you see him disengage from a block and be in position to make a tackle. Those are important things too.
“Where his focus is going to go up until we’re playing and then beyond is just things very specific to corner: press techniques, pedal transition, eye transition.”
In early work, Davis has shown a tendency to keep his eyes on the quarterback too long, Lea said. Perhaps that’s because he’s more familiar with that position.
But Davis has embraced the position switch and the challenges that come with it. He might not have experience tackling, but he’s shown a willingness to be physical.
“Open-field tackling is a skill that has to be taught and repped,” Lea said. “Just like every young player, he has a ways to go there. Avery Davis is a competitor. He’s tough. As long as we can coach him and he can stay patient with himself, his ability to make a tackle, I don’t have any concern with that.”
Griffith at cornerback
A clearer path to playing time hasn’t dictated Houston Griffith’s position.
Even though Rivals ranked Griffith as the top Notre Dame signee in the 2018 class and the No. 4 safety prospect in the country, the Irish intend to keep him at cornerback.
The 6-0, 205-pound Griffith could win a starting spot at corner as the Irish search to find a replacement for NFL-bound Julian Love. At safety, Griffith would be blocked by returning starters Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman.
The decision to keep Griffith at cornerback isn’t related to the depth chart, Lea said.
“There’s a guy who’s earned the chance to be a starter for us, to have a chance to compete for that,” Lea said. “He has skills that at that position can be elite. That position is a critical part of any defense. This is about Houston maximizing his skills and his potential to help us win.”
Griffith bounced in and out of the lineup at nickelback last season. He recorded 14 tackles and two pass breakups in 11 games.
“I’m excited for Houston to go out there and compete everyday and to show what he can do,” Lea said. “He has physical traits that would lead him to be effective there. He just has to learn it and do it.”
Defensive tackle depth
Only three defensive tackles on Notre Dame’s roster have played in more than one college football game: juniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and sophomore Jayson Ademilola.
Behind them are defensive tackles sidelined with injuries — sophomore Jamion Franklin (quad) and freshman Hunter Spears (knee) — and junior Darnell Ewell, who has returned back to the defensive line after switching to offensive line last season.
Yet those numbers don’t have Lea worried about the position.
“Right now, that’s not what keeps me up at night,” Lea said. “We have a great D-line coach (Mike Elston) that is getting young guys ready. We’re going to reintroduce healthy bodies and add some bodies in the summer and fall that will be not just serviceable but will push the standard forward.”
Perhaps that means freshman defensive end Howard Cross III, who will join the team in June, will move inside. But healthy versions of Franklin and Spears can’t be certainties. Franklin had surgery in late September for a torn quad tendon. Spears underwent surgery on an ACL tear in his left knee for the second time in November.
While he remains optimistic, Lea said the staff will go back to the drawing board if they’re short on numbers in the fall.
“Hunter is an early enrollee rehabbing an injury, but he’s going to be better for his time spent here,” Lea said. “Jamion really was a guy that was able to play for us. The game he got hurt was the Wake Forest game. He was coming along. He’s going to have a road back. It’s not going to be seamless, but he has the ability to help. We’ll expect him to come back and add to that.”
Paul Moala lined up with Notre Dame’s starting defense for the first spring practice earlier this month. The sophomore from Penn High School was elevated to the top unit in the absence of starting safety Alohi Gilman, who sat out practice with a minor leg muscle strain.
Gilman will certainly take his starting spot back when healthy, but the spring should offer plenty of opportunities for Moala and fellow sophomore Derrik Allen. With Devin Studstill pursuing a graduate transfer, the Irish lack experience behind the starting duo of Gilman and Jalen Elliott.
That means Moala and Allen could be an injury away from a starting opportunity this season.
“For both those guys, they are in a position now where they’re getting a ton of reps,” Lea said. “They’re making mistakes but they’re learning from them and they’re both bought in and they’re playing hard. At the end of the day, their development will be predicted over the next spring and summer. We’re excited about both.”
The Irish also have sophomore D.J. Brown cross-training at cornerback and safety this spring.