After assessing the Notre Dame front seven last week--first the defensive line, then the linebackers--we conclude our analysis of the Notre Dame defense today with a look at the secondary. The Irish defense has justifiably been given a lot of credit for the 12-0 regular season, and their front seven in particular has gotten a lot of that credit. As we noted in our earlier pieces in this series, the Notre Dame front seven is every bit the equal of Alabama's own front seven, and that says a lot given the talent that Nick Saban has brought to Tuscaloosa. The rubber match then, if you will, on the defensive side of the ball will come with our comparison of the two teams' defensive backs.
With all of the kudos that have gone to the Irish front seven, their secondary has often been identified as the weak link of the defense as a whole. That's probably true to an extent; if one had to pick one of the three levels of the Irish defense to call the weakest, this would probably be it, though this unit is far better than some Alabama fans would like to believe, and light years ahead of the expectations that even Notre Dame fans had heading into this season, especially given some major injuries suffered early this fall.
In fact, had it not been for those injuries, this unit might well have given the other defensive units a run for their money in terms of overall strength and depth. Instead, injuries to two would-be starters make this by far the least experienced unit of an otherwise veteran-laden Notre Dame defense. However, this is still a unit that has plenty of talent, and for the most part has performed well above expectations this season.
The Irish Defensive Backs
Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.
Notre Dame's secondary is led by two veterans with underrated capabilities. At corner, the veteran leader is junior Bennett Jackson (#2), possibly one of the most underrated players on Notre Dame's entire roster. He is ranked as the 6th best corner in the nation among the junior class, meaning that he'll probably be projected to go somewhere around the 3rd round or so in next year's draft. In other words, Jackson is a legitimate NFL player, and not only does he have the talent to play at a high level, but he has also produced this season as one of the secondary's leaders. He is tied for second on the team in tackles with 61 on the year, and he is also second in interceptions with 4 this season.
The other leader in the unit is the group's only senior, safety Zeke Motta (#17). Motta is projected to be drafted in the 4th or 5th round of this year's NFL Draft, and is ranked as the 11th best safety in this year's draft class. Like Bennett, Motta is likely a legitimate NFL player, and like Jackson, he has produced for the Irish this season. He is tied with Jackson for second on the team in tackles with 61, though perhaps surprisingly for a safety of his quality, he does not have an interception this season. Nevertheless, he is a strong tackler and excels in run support.
The player expected to start opposite of Jackson at corner this season was junior Lo Wood, but Wood suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp, leaving the Irish with a group of only freshmen and sophomores from which to find a replacement. The player that emerged and quickly claimed the starting spot was true freshman KeiVarae Russell (#6), who has since started every game. Though he is obviously very young, Russell has impressed this season and appears to have a bright future. He is ranked as the 5th best cornerback in the freshman class, so he may well be an NFL player in the making. Russell has two interceptions on the year to go along with 50 tackles.
Notre Dame faced a similar dilemma at safety when fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter, who started the first three games of the season, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Although there were a few more veteran options to fill in for Slaughter at safety than there were for Wood at corner, it was a redshirt freshman who stepped in and claimed the vacant starting spot when Slaughter went down. Matthias Farley (#41) has started each game at safety opposite Motta in Slaughter's absence, accumulating 43 tackles and an interception on the season. Farley is not currently ranked as an NFL prospect, but this is still his freshman season and he didn't start all of the year, so the jury could still largely be out on his pro prospects.
With the early injuries the unit has suffered, it's no surprise that depth is something of a question. Obviously, as with every other team, extra defensive backs are often called upon not just to fill in with injury replacements, but also to join the starters on the field on passing downs. However, Notre Dame has not had a clear go-to nickel back, instead relying on a few different untested defensive backs in such situations, though Notre Dame does not play its reserve defensive backs nearly as often as Alabama does. At corner, the player most called upon has been true freshman Elijah Shumate (#22), who has 8 tackles and 3 pass delections on the year. The safety most often called into action has been another true freshman, Nicky Baratti (#29), who has recorded 8 tackles and an interception this season.
Other Irish defensive backs who see occasional action and/or special teams play are fifth-year senior safety Dan McCarthy (#15), redshirt freshman corner Cam McDaniel (#33), sophomore corner Josh Atkinson (#43), fifth-year senior safety Chris Salvi (#24), and redshirt freshman corner Jalen Brown (#21).
Comparing Notre Dame's defensive backs to Alabama's
Both teams feature a senior safety with loads of experience anchoring the secondary. For Alabama, that player is fifth-year senior Robert Lester (#37), who is starting for the third straight year. Lester is projected to be a 3rd round pick in this year's NFL Draft, and is ranked as the 7th best safety in this year's draft class, just ahead of Notre Dame's Motta, who is ranked as the 11th best safety in this year's draft class and is expected to be chosen in the 4th or 5th round.
Like Notre Dame, Alabama is also led by a junior corner. The Tide's Dee Milliner (#28) is one of those cover corners who won't blow you away with with stats, though he has broken up a staggering 18 passes and has picked off two more. His talent however is undeniable, and even many Alabama fans don't realize just how coveted he is on the next level. Though he has not yet officially decided whether or not he will forego his senior season, he is projected to be a very early 1st round pick in this year's NFL Draft should he leave early, and is ranked as the nation's #1 corner despite being just a junior. While Notre Dame's top corner Bennett is a talented future NFL player in his own right, he isn't on Milliner's level. In fact, Milliner, who is relatively low on media hype and far from a household name, is projected by many experts to be selected ahead of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o in this year's draft despite being a year younger.
Alabama's other starting corner position is occupied by junior Deion Belue (#13). Belue is ranked as the 13th best corner in the junior class, which would place him in the 5th round or so of next year's NFL Draft should that hold. Many Alabama fans consider Belue, who is playing his first year of Division I football after transferring from a junior college, to be the weak link in the Bama secondary. While Belue is the least experienced and perhaps least talented starter in the Tide's unit, he is still a player considered to be an NFL player after another year in Saban's system, it's just that he is often targeted by opposing offenses due to Milliner's presence on the other side of the field. It's difficult to compare Belue to Notre Dame's #2 corner Russell, but it could well be a push. Both are talented players with likely NFL futures, but lack experience.
Alabama has essentially co-starters at safety opposite of Lester, though sophomore Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (#6) is usually listed as the starter and probably plays more total snaps on defense. Clinton-Dix is immensely talented, ranked as the 2nd best free safety in the sophomore class nation-wide. He excels in pass coverage and is tied with Lester for the team lead in interceptions with 4 on the season.
Clinton-Dix alone would be enough to give Alabama a clear edge over Notre Dame's Farley at that spot, but Alabama features another sophomore safety who is often considered a co-starter at that spot in Vinnie Sunseri (#3). He is ranked as the #1 best strong safety in the sophomore class nation-wide. Although he doesn't play every snap on defense, Sunseri rotates in heavily and probably ends up playing the majority of the team's snaps on defense, as Alabama likes to bring on extra defensive backs much more frequently than does Notre Dame.
Speaking of liking to bring on extra defensive backs, Alabama has two other players who play situationally as part of the first-team defense. Junior safety Nick Perry (#27) has seen time throughout the season in passing situations, and has managed 37 tackles on the year despite being the team's fourth safety, a sign of how much Alabama likes to bring in additional players into the secondary throughout the game. Toward the end of the season the Tide has also begun to rely on its third corner, true freshman Geno Smith (#24). Though the young player has only just begun to emerge into the regular rotation, his talent is glaring and he has provided an upgrade over Sunseri and Perry in marking slot receivers in man coverage on passing plays.
With those seven players appearing in the regular defensive back rotation, Alabama has still other capable defensive backs who see significant action on special teams, such as fourth-year junior corner John Fulton (#10), true freshman safety Landon Collins (#26), and redshirt freshman corner Bradley Sylve (#16).
While both fanbases like to nitpick about their respective secondaries, they are both very talented, very productive units. Notre Dame, with two veteran NFL-caliber players leading the way in Motta and Jackson and some young rising stars like Russell who have filled in admirably for the injured players, has a secondary that has been "good"--a little better than many give it credit for and much better than just about anyone expected after the early-season injuries--but isn't overly stocked with high-end talent nor is it deep thanks to the aforementioned injuries.
Alabama meanwhile also has a secondary that has been better than even its own fans give it credit for, both in terms of talent and in terms of production. Alabama has what many consider to be the best defensive back in all of college football in Milliner, have a senior safety in Lester who is an NFL lock, possibly even an early round pick himself, and have no fewer than three young players in Clinton-Dix, Sunseri, and now Smith who are elite talents and likely future high-end picks in their own right. The fact that Alabama fans are so concerned about Belue, a player ranked 13th nationally among all juniors, shows how talented and deep this group is.
While Notre Dame has a good secondary, Alabama has a clearly better one--even if it is a significant downgrade from the Alabama secondary that lost two 1st round picks and a 4th round pick in last year's NFL draft. The Tide has also faced three secondaries that probably have more overall NFL talent than Notre Dame (LSU and Georgia of course, and also Mississippi State).
The final analysis here is simple: Notre Dame has a good secondary, but it isn't quite up to Alabama's level, nor is it up to the standard of at least three of the units Alabama has faced this year. While the difference in the two secondaries is not overwhelming, it is the difference in comparing the two defenses overall. Alabama's secondary gives its defense a slight edge in overall talent, given that the two teams' front sevens are more or less equivalent.
While Notre Dame doesn't have the most talented defense in the country, their talent level does place them among the top dozen or so defenses in the nation, and it is by far their best collection of NFL talent on that side of the football in at least a couple of decades. Further, they are rated among the top five most productive defenses in the nation according to some efficiency-based statistics. Again, however, Alabama's has been slightly more productive based on those same metrics, but both teams certainly have elite defenses capable of playing at a championship level.