Bob Elliott believes he has a winning trio at safety in Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth.
To think of the Irish safety position as a strength without Harrison Smith patrolling the back end of the Notre Dame defense was, by most accounts, an unexpected occurrence when Smith played his last game for the Irish in Orlando a little more than three months ago.
But then Slaughter stepped up to become the vocal leader of the group. Motta asked for many of the responsibilities that Smith had. And Collinsworth began to understand the big picture of the defense. That makes a solid trio with high marks from Elliott for walk-on Chris Salvi, the special teams stalwart who is returning for a fifth season.
The strengths at safety start with Slaughter, the versatile, hard-hitting defensive back who could be found playing just about anywhere in the Irish defense this fall, including cornerback, where he worked this past week.
“(Slaughter’s) skill set is so flexible that he gives us options,” Elliott said. “He’s already proven that. He’s played nickel, he’s played all kinds of different positions before. And so we’re just trying to cross train a little and preserve those options.”
As is often the case, the move of one player is predicated by the advancement or lack there of by another. The coaching staff wouldn’t be looking at Slaughter at cornerback if Collinsworth weren’t making notable progress.
“One of the things that has precipitated our ability to move (Slaughter) around a little is Collinsworth, who really has had a great spring,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t here last year, but from what he tells me, he was just trying to learn the system.
“Now he’s been in the system for a year, he sees things, and he’s mentally sharp. He’s a smart guy anyway, and now he has some experience to go with it. I’m really happy with him. He’s been a real pleasant…not a surprise, but he’s been really good this spring.”
The son of former NFL receiver Cris – and a former receiver himself – Collinsworth’s natural athleticism and football assets are starting to ooze out.
“Austin has an interesting set of skills,” Elliott said. “He’s got some quickness and receiver-like traits that make him pretty good out in space. I don’t know how he used that as an offensive player, but you can’t create that. He’s a feisty dude, and he likes to play.”
Additionally, the soft-spoken Motta – well, the previously soft-spoken Motta – wouldn’t have asked for additional leadership duties in the secondary. Elliott doesn’t know about all that. He wasn’t here. All he sees now is an eager, energetic leader in the secondary.
“We’re counting on Zeke to make the checks and do the mental part of the work that goes with being the boundary safety, and he’s really making strides in those areas right now,” Elliott said.
“He wanted that challenge. He asked to have that challenge in the off-season, and we’re going to give him a chance to prove that he can do it. Zeke is a big, long body that can go up and fight for the ball.”
While many wonder what the Irish are going to do with all the safeties once four freshmen arrive this summer, they’re still seeking a fourth safety and beyond as the competition heats up. Right now, it’s fifth-year senior Salvi.
“I like him,” said Elliott of 5-foot-10, 190-pounder. “He’s just a gritty guy and a huge effort player. He’s as good an effort player as we have on our team. That always translates on special teams, but it’s translating right now into his play at safety.”
If sophomore Eilar Hardy can get past some physical ailments, he has a chance to help the Irish, particularly after preserving a year of eligibility in 2011 following a fall knee injury.
“He’s been better the last couple of days,” said Elliott of Hardy. “He was hurt last fall. He’s had some muscle injury problems in the off-season and then early in spring. So he’s really been held back by those injuries. He’s probably 80 percent right now, but he’s forcing himself through so he can learn.
“I know it’s frustrating for him because he can’t go 100 percent, so we really haven’t gotten a great evaluation of him yet. But hopefully, when he comes back from Easter break with four or five days to heal, we can get a good evaluation at the end of spring.”
Elliott said both Hardy and cornerback Jalen Brown are contributing in the nickel and dime packages this spring with more options on the way.
“We have some guys coming in this fall that could play in some of those sub-package positions, and then Jalen Brown is playing a little bit in the sub-package too,” Elliott said. “He and Eilar Hardy are being trained to know what to do as a nickel. So we’re trying to preserve as many options as we can and evaluate those options as they go.”