Notre Dame football: Farley sees no guarantees

South Bend Tribune

Matthias Farley knows the route to the playing field can be a strange one.

Just a season ago, Farley entered fall camp as a sophomore enigma – one that flipped positions, wide receiver to defensive back, after one season at ND and flipped sports, soccer to football, halfway into his high school career. He emerged as a starting safety.

So while the coaching staff looks to fill the safety position left open next to Farley thanks to Zeke Motta’s graduation, he’s not even willing to admit one of the starting spots belongs to him.

“I don't think any spot is necessarily guaranteed,” Farley said. “It's a very talented group so I don't think for a second that I'm locked in. I still have to perform every day just as everyone else does. The guys who are competing for safety positions are all very, very talented. There's a lot of experience coming back.”

Experience might not be the right adjective to describe the other safeties on Notre Dame’s roster. Compared to Farley’s 11 starts as a sophomore, the others returning, who have combined for zero starts, have only been given a taste of the playing field.

Austin Collinsworth, the only senior at the position, missed all of last season with a shoulder injury following a sophomore season as a special teams star. Sophomores Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti each showed flashes in limited playing time last season and the rest of the scholarship safeties – junior Eilar Hardy, sophomore John Turner and Chris Badger and freshman Max Redfield – have yet to see the field.

Numbers are no longer an issue at the position, but safeties coach Bob Elliott can’t form a mutant safety using all their best attributes. Choosing a safety to fill Motta’s role will require a scale to find the most well-balanced safety.

With coverage-calling responsibilities, an understanding of the defensive scheme starts the list of necessary qualities needed to win the starting role. As a senior, Collinsworth has a leg up in that category. Both he and Farley have worked with the juniors and sophomores to make mental strides with the Xs and Os. Farley spent a lot of time working with Shumate, possibly the most athletic of the returning safeties, in the film room.

“I think that helped him a whole lot. Then just getting 7-on-7 reps, one-on-one reps and kinda seeing how the film translated to the field, I think he progressed a lot understanding not just what he's doing but what everyone else around him is doing,” Farley said. “I think that helped develop his game along, knowing how his little piece of the puzzle fits into where everyone else is. He really proved it all summer.”

Shumate could become a valuable weapon in the secondary if his brains can match his ability to knock brains out.

“Shumate crushes people,” Farley said. “It's not even close. Shumate's by far the hardest-hitting person (in the secondary).”

Baratti, along with Collinsworth and Shumate, completes the trio of players most likely to earn the starting role. His interception in the Michigan game, one of only two made by Irish safeties last season, showed his ability to make plays in the secondary.

The addition of five-star freshman Redfield will push the returning safeties to remain relevant on the depth chart. He has plenty of bodies in front of him to beat out, but Redfield already impressed in summer workouts.

"He's an incredible athlete. You look at his physical attributes, the sky's the limit for him just looking at that,” Farley said. “He's a very bright kid so hopefully he'll pick up everything fast and be able to contribute.”

Taking on a leadership role, Farley has valuable advice to give his fellow safeties. Even though his path to the field was accelerated last fall, Farley preaches patience to the younger players.

“A lot of times you want to be a lot better than you are before you're ready to be that,” Farley said. “Just continue to grow and develop and take coaching and ask questions and trust that what the coaches and other players are telling you is to help you. It's their job to help. It's their job to get you to learn it.”

The final step will be to establish a rapport with the other starting safety and eventually the cornerbacks playing with them.

“You have to have a clear line of communication, especially at safety, because you have to make every check, make sure everyone's in the right spot,” Farley said. “You both have to see it. Sometimes maybe you don't catch something so you need to have someone else out there with you who you feel comfortable with and you know that if you miss something that they're going to catch it and vice versa.”

Cornerback Bennett Jackson, who spent most of last season playing to the same side of the field as Motta, will have a close eye on the safety competition.

“At the end of the day, the safeties are the ones that make all the calls. We can relay back and forth if we want to change it, but at the end of the day, the cornerback does what the safety says,” Jackson said. “I think it's extremely important - at least to me, I would want to know how the safety behind me plays, what speed he plays at, what he tends to do. Once you get that down, I feel like you have the potential to be a really good secondary."

The Irish have three weeks of camp and one week of game preparation to forge a new safety into a secondary with returning starters.

"It requires a lot of trust, but at the end of the day you're forced to trust them no matter what when you're on the field with them,” Jackson said. “Throughout camp you just push each other through different situations so that you learn how they would react through different situations.”

Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley does not take his starting role with the Irish for granted. South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN