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June 13, 2012

Secondary in critical condition

Losing a safety who's never started a game shouldn't be a major off-season story.

It is for Notre Dame.

On Wednesday the football program confirmed that junior safety Austin Collinsworth could be lost for the season following shoulder surgery to repair a torn left labrum, suffered during the Blue-Gold Game. Recovery time is expected to be four-to-six months. Sources tell Irish Illustrated that Collinsworth expects to take a medical redshirt this fall.

To understand the dire status of Notre Dame's secondary, consider that Collinsworth ranked as the program's clear fifth defensive back entering the summer with the drop precipitous after him. And that's for a player who enrolled as a receiver before switching sides of the ball after his freshman season.

Collinsworth would have been a key component in a secondary cobbled together after losing first round pick Harrison Smith, fifth round pick Robert Blanton and undrafted free agent Gary Gray. Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta provide a stable safety tandem, but cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood have comparable experience to Collinsworth: zero career starts.

Jackson missed the spring game with his own shoulder injury.

With Matt Barkley, Landry Jones and Denard Robinson on the schedule, the Notre Dame secondary figures to get a workout all season. With two new starting corners plus shallow depth, surviving it may be a challenge.

The Collinsworth loss ends the Slaughter-to-cornerback experiment before Brian Kelly could revive it during training camp. It will also force the staff to rely on either career reserves in the nickel and dime packages or completely unproven youth.

Former walk-on Chris Salvi might be next man in at safety after working ahead of fifth-year senior Danny McCarthy much of spring. Other options include sophomore Eilar Hardy, who missed last season with a knee injury, or incoming freshman Elijah Shumate.

Notre Dame's remaining safety options are sophomore Matthias Farley, also a converted receiver, freshman Chris Badger, who's returning from a Mormon mission, along with incoming freshmen C.J. Prosise, John Turner and Nicky Baratti.

Sophomore cornerback Jalen Brown could also move to the backend of the defense, but that would leave the Irish with just four cornerbacks in Wood, Jackson, Josh Atkinson and converted running back Cam McDaniel.

Collinsworth played in all 26 games the past two seasons, primarily on special teams. He won special teams player of the year last season, leading the team with 16 stops in the kicking game. He saw brief work at safety later in the season.

Collinsworth probably won't see any work this fall. Finding a capable replacement will be a major challenge.

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