Youth movement part of cultural shift in Notre Dame secondary

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There was nothing casual or off-the-cuff about the way Todd Lyght dropped Jalen Elliott’s name into conversation on Wednesday.

The message, and the conviction behind it, was that it doesn’t matter that Elliott is still finishing up his final semester of classes at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Richmond, Va., and is still 2½ months removed from his first informal workout with his new Notre Dame football teammates.

He’ll challenge the depth chart status quo at free safety when he does arrive, Lyght is convinced, much the way early-enrolled freshman Devin Studstill has capsized it through the first six practices of the spring.

“He’s a warrior, and he’s going to come in and be able to help us right away,” said Lyght, ND’s former All-America cornerback now in his second season as the team’s defensive backs coach, of Elliott, a 6-foot, 190-pounder. “He’s been working on his body and the mental part of the game.”

And he’s not alone. Cornerbacks Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr., and Julian Love are expected to keep away from the redshirts and push players in front of them with more experience.

“We need guys who come in and play right away,” Lyght said of the Irish secondary. “I want to recruit guys that have ability and potential to play on Sunday. That’s what I’m looking for when I go out.”

That senior-to-be and two-year incumbent starting free safety Max Redfield is pushing back rather than sulking or accepting the youth movement is hardly an understated part of a significant evolution in the back end of the Notre Dame defense that feels more like a revolution.

The schematic tweaks that came out of an offseason self-scouting/opponent critique process complement the cultural shift. It’s about getting more speed in the secondary, recruiting and developing players who won’t shrink mentally or physically when large doses of man-to-man defense are called for, and opening up every position to constant evaluation.

“We’re going to put the best 11 players on the field, no matter what grade they’re in, no matter how long they’ve been in the program,” Lyght said of an Irish defensive until that ranked a tepid 45th nationally out of 127 last season, with much more seasoned personnel than this year’s squad.

“If they can help us win, if they can be productive players, they’re going to get out there and they’re going to play. And they’re going to play right now.”

When you look at some of the ugly numbers from last year’s defense, the lack of pass rush hurt the secondary play, and the lack of consistent secondary play hurt coordinator Brian VanGorder’s ability to dial up more creative looks up front to generate a pass rush.

As a result, ND’s No. 57 ranking in pass-efficiency defense nationally, its 109 standing in turnovers forced, 75 ranking in sacks and 115 placement in fourth-down conversion defense were scars from a unit that underachieved and essentially separated the Irish from a shot at the College Football Playoff.

“When defensive linemen make a mistake, it’s five yards,” Lyght said. “When linebacker make a mistake, it’s a first down. When defensive backs make a mistake, it’s an explosive play or a touchdown.

“We’ve got to be assignment-sound. We’ve got to be technique-sound, and we’ve got to play with elite effort at all times. I think if we can do that consistently, we’ll be great on the back end.”

And if the Irish are going to be a surprise team in 2016 — in a good way — the secondary is where that conversation will either start or terminate.

Lyght himself had some adjustments to make in his re-entry to college football. His most extensive hands-on coaching experience in his still fledgling coaching career came in two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles (2013-14).

“Just understanding the time restraints you have with the 20-hour rule, where you only get them for so much amount of time,” he offered. “In the NFL, you had them all day, so you could be very detailed in what you do.

“So our approach in practice, our approach in meetings has got to be laser-like focused and our meetings have got to be quick, but we’ve got to get the information to them.

“Every athlete learns a little bit differently. So you’ve got to figure out the way they learn best and incorporate that into practice, so their development will be faster.”

So far those accelerating through the fast track the most efficiently are Studstill, junior Drue Tranquill at strong safety, senior Cole Luke at one corner with Shaun Crawford at the other. That’s 30 career starts among them, 26 of them tied up in Luke.

But as Lyght notes, that alignment could change tomorrow, including Luke getting usurped. Or when the team concludes spring drills with the annual Blue-Gold Game April 16 at Notre Dame Stadium. Or in the summer time. Or the night before the Irish open the 2016 season at Texas.

Tranquill and Crawford are intriguing, not just for their rise to the top of the depth charts, but for their versatility.

Crawford could conceivably win a starting cornerback job and also play the nickel in ND’s third-down packages. Tranquill could move all over the formation, including linebacker in some sub packages or even as a pass rusher.

“We’re going to play a lot of guys, and we’re going to attack them in waves,” Lyght said. “And I think we’ve got a really, really good group that could do some special things this year.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN