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2018 Notre Dame football redshirt projections: Safeties

2018 Notre Dame freshman strong safety Derrik Allen
Notre Dame safeties coach Terry Joseph shares a laugh with an Irish player prior to a practice this spring at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
2018 Notre Dame freshman free safety Houston Griffith
Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght speaks with the media on National Signing Day in February at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
2018 Notre Dame freshman free safety Paul Moala
Notre Dame safeties Houston Griffith (3) and Nicco Fertitta participate in a drill during a practice this spring at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly watches his team from on the field during the Blue-Gold Game in April in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

The Notre Dame pass defense made significant strides in 2017 as compared to the previous season.

The Fighting Irish curbed five percentage points off its opponents’ completion rate (61.7 to 56.6 percent), which improved its ranking from 102nd nationally to 49th.

Throughout this spring, veteran Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said that his defense was playing with a great deal more confidence as the unit continues to trend in the proper direction.

“Defensively,” Kelly said following the annual Blue-Gold Game this spring, “I thought we were aggressive. We played the ball in the air. We were attacking the football.”

The Irish return starting strong safety Jalen Elliott and adds Navy transfer Alohi Gilman at free safety, but that didn’t keep the Notre Dame coaches from bolstering the strength of the safeties by adding three newcomers, who first-year safeties coach Terry Joseph said will get the opportunity to contribute immediately, if capable.

“I told the guys,” Joseph said this spring, “at the end of the day, I love them all, but the truth of the matter is that the best two guys are going to run out there against Michigan on Sept. 1.

“I don’t care what grade they are in. I don’t care what jersey number they wear, or how long they have been here,”

For the first time, programs can play a student-athlete in up to four games, yet still have him maintain eligibility for four more seasons. So there are players that will perform to a level that the Notre Dame coaches believe can help all season, while they will have to juggle who to rein in and keep eligible for four seasons down the road.

News-Sentinel.com is going to take a look over the next week at each of the position groups and the freshmen student-athletes and project the level of impact for the coming season.

Today: Safeties

Thursday: Cornerbacks

DERRIK ALLEN

Position: Strong Safety

Notre Dame cornerback coach Todd Lyght watched film of Allen when he was just a sophomore and he had seen enough to know that the youngster was good enough for the Fighting Irish.

The protocol is to discuss with Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff before offering a kid a scholarship but Lyght didn’t – couldn’t – wait following Allen’s visit to South Bend that year.

“His film was outstanding,” Lyght said. “I remember thinking this guy is special. He’s the type of player that you could see, even in the 10th grade, he is going to play on Sunday.

“Usually we don’t offer 10th graders, but I knew that he was such an outstanding talent, I ended up offering him.”

Allen was playing cornerback at that point, but he grew into a 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior safety and Lyght loves him as much, if not more, today than he did three years ago.

“He is an outstanding young man and a great student-athlete,” Lyght said. “I think he is the type of player who can come in and help us right away due to his size and strength.

“He is a phenomenal player and is obviously one of the best in the country. We are thrilled to have him.”

Allen will start out behind incumbent starter Elliott and junior Devin Studstill; however, that depth chart probably won’t look the same by mid-season, if not earlier.

Projection: Could play on special teams, as well as will get reps in all/majority of games and won’t redshirt.

HOUSTON GRIFFITH

Position: Free Safety

Allen is expected to be really good, while Griffith is already showing that he is.

The Illinois native graduated from IMG Academy in Florida early and enrolled in South Bend in January in order to participate in spring football.

The 6-foot, 196-pound athlete showed really strong cover skills at cornerback, but he also had the ability to tackle, so Kelly moved him to safety halfway through the spring.

“We like his contact skills,” Kelly said.

Griffith isn’t expected to beat out Gilman, who started 12 games as a true freshman at Navy, but Kelly didn’t beat around the bush when he addressed Griffith’s role this coming season.

“He knows what he is doing,” Kelly said later in the spring after moving Griffith. “You never know until they get here and you put the pads on them. He has great instincts. He knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here.

“He’s going to play for us in the fall.”

Projection: Could play on special teams, as well as will get reps in all/majority of games and won’t redshirt.

PAUL MOALA

Position: Free Safety

Moala surprised the Notre Dame coaches during the recruiting process with an amazing exhibition of speed at the Irish Invasion Camp, and Irish special teams coach Brian Polian said the Penn High School graduate just might do the same this coming fall, as well.

“Moala, specifically, I am very excited to get to work with him,” Polian said earlier this summer. “What Paul might need to catch up on in terms of playing the game of football, and caught up to our level, I think that his athletic ability translates pretty quickly to special teams, not only as a returner but also as a cover guy.”

Moala will probably have a difficult time leaping over Gilman, Griffith, and veterans Nick Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, but he should be impactful on special teams.

“He could come in right away and help us on special teams,” Lyght said on National Signing Day. “His combination of speed and size and strength makes him a very, very dangerous freshman coming in. He is really going to push all of the safeties in front of him.”

Projection: Should play on special teams, as well as possibly getting some reps in a handful of games and won’t redshirt.

For more on Notre Dame football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010, Facebook at Thomas Davis, and Instagram at tomdavis101010.

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