After a woeful 4-8 season that still has media outlets piling on the downtrodden program (see tweet below), Notre Dame’s staff went through a pretty dramatic makeover, which includes the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Among the most maddening of the Irish’s struggles in 2016 was the defense, which struggled all year to make crucial big plays and create turnovers. Spring football has seen a couple subtle position changes that could make all the difference for the Irish in 2017.
Junior Nick Coleman has made the transition from cornerback to free safety this spring. After having a rough 2016 season at corner, Coleman has catapulted himself back into the starting lineup ahead of incumbent free safety Devin Studstill, who is competing with Jalen Elliot for the other safety position. Coleman’s emergence as a safety may come partly out of necessity, as the Irish are thin at the safety position outside of Coleman, Studstill, and Elliot.
No one has ever questioned Coleman’s raw talent as a football player. After all, Coleman is one of the fastest players on the team, having logged a sub-4.5 second forty time. Perhaps his transition to safety is the rebirth Coleman needs to regain his confidence, which was clearly shaken (and probably lost) last season. With defensive coordinator Mike Elko as a safeties expert, Coleman could be poised for a breakout 2017 season and if he does, the Irish defense could greatly improve at the back end.
Along with the changes in the defensive backfield, senior Drue Tranquill is the leader in the clubhouse for Mike Elko’s rover position. In the 4-2-5 alignment Elko likes to run, the rover position is essentially the nickel cornerback, but is more of a linebacker-safety hybrid. This new position fits Tranquill perfectly, as Tranquill has always been strong in the run game, but on the outside looking in during passing situations.
In Mike Elko’s defense the rover position lines up on the wide side of the field, but his width is dictated by the offense’s number and alignment of receivers. Wake Forest’s primary rover player in 2016 was Thomas Brown, who logged 65 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4 sacks in 2016. The bottom line is that Tranquill will be playing closer to the line of scrimmage in 2017. He will have opportunities to make plays in the backfield against both the run and the pass.