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Notre Dame Spring Preview: Safety

Breaking down the Notre Dame safety position heading into the 2024 spring

Heading into the 2023 spring the safety position was a major question mark, and that is true once again for 2024. The good news is that the 2023 safety group turned out to be pretty good, with Xavier Watts breaking out as an All-American and DJ Brown having the best season of his career.

The return of Watts provides a tremendous foundation to build upon, but the rest of the position group is a major question mark. Notre Dame will also have a new position coach, with Mike Mickens taking over the entire secondary after performing brilliantly with the cornerbacks.

Outside of Watts, the Irish are young and highly inexperienced, and the depth is shaky. Mickens will certainly have his hands full, as will Marty Biagi, who will be assisting in the development of the young safeties. If they can get the younger players to step up the position will be fine, but if not, safety could be a trouble spot. 


2024 Spring Depth Chart - Safety


Xavier Watts - 52 tackles, 7 INT, 4 break ups, 3 TFL
Adon Shuler - 6 tackles
Luke Talich - 2 tackles
Ben Minich - 1 tackle

Watts brings plenty of experience, but as you can see, the rest of the spring safety depth chart is quite inexperienced. 


There were plenty of reasons why Xavier Watts decided to return to Notre Dame for his fifth season. After his unanimous All-American campaign, no one would have blamed him if he left for the NFL. Having him back is huge for the defense, and his veteran presence will be a huge plus for the safety group this spring.

Watts came back with plans to improve his game, and if he does that it would be wonderful. If all he does is repeat his 2023 performance he'll obviously still be an excellent player, and a foundational piece for the defense. So the base objective is to keep doing what he's doing, and then use the experience he gained in 2023 to make any necessary improvements, or adjustments.

Being a more consistent tackler would be key for Watts, but we already started to see that improvement. According to PFF, Watts had nine missed tackles in the first six games, but he had just four in the final seven games. There are still some instances where his angle to the ball isn't what it needs to be, so focusing on that this spring would be key. Watts could also use a bit more footwork emphasis in man coverage, but at this point it's nitpicking. He's an excellent player, and if he simply repeats his 2023 performance he'll once again be a star.

If there is one significant change we could see from Watts this spring is leadership. Last season it was about doing his job, now he needs to not only do his job, but provide leadership to the younger safeties and also the rest of the defense.


With Northwestern transfer Rod Heard finishing up his master's degree and not able to practice this spring, there is an opportunity for the younger safeties to get a lot of reps. A player that will look to take advantage of that is sophomore Adon Shuler. The New Jersey native will begin the spring as the first boundary safety on the field, and if he can have a good spring he'll have a chance to earn the starting role in the fall.

Shuler was one of the better defensive pickups for Notre Dame in the 2023 class. After earning some backup snaps in 2023 - while keeping his redshirt - Shuler gets a chance to push for a key role at safety this spring. Whether he starts or not, the reality is Notre Dame needs Shuler to emerge as a factor this spring. 

He came to Notre Dame with a reputation for being a smart safety that was a thumper, and he showed that off in limited snaps last season. What surprised me when I saw Shuler was how well he ran. He moved better than I thought he would, and that raised my expectations for him even more. Now he needs to display enough of a grasp for the defense to earn the confidence of the staff.

If Shuler can pick up the defense and play loose this spring he'll make a strong impression. It will allow him to make a lot of plays in the run game, but it should also allow him to be more effective in coverage, which was an area where he wasn't quite as sharp against Oregon State, the game where he got the most reps. 

We need to see Shuler show a lot of growth this spring. Even if he isn't a starter, the defense needs him to provide depth at the position. If he can play like a starter it should give the Irish at least a strong three-man rotation with Watts and Heard.


Arguably the most intriguing player at safety is Luke Talich, who is now on scholarship. Let's be honest, Talich was only a walk-on in the technical sense. He turned down offers from programs like Utah and Washington State to come to Notre Dame, and it was only a matter of time before he was put on scholarship. Now he goes into the spring looking to become a greater factor on defense.

Talich only played six snaps on defense as a true freshman, but he did earn a starting job on the kickoff coverage unit and also played on the punt return team. Despite missing the final three games with a shoulder injury, Talich goes into the spring with a chance to earn a more prominent role on defense.

At 6-4 and 210 pounds, Talich doesn't look like a traditional safety. The good news is he moves like one, and his combination of range and tackling ability gives the defense something it largely lacked last season. Talich has the range to play the deep middle, but where he impresses the most is when he gets to fly downhill. He covers a lot of ground in a hurry, and as he gets stronger he'll be a more impactful hitter.

What I don't know about Talich is what he can do in coverage. He was so much better than everyone he played against in high school, and we didn't see him in coverage during his freshman season. If Talich chan handle that part of the game this spring I won't be at all surprised if he pushes for a more prominent role.


Shuler is likely going to be part of the rotation (barring injury), and I won't be at all surprised if Talich makes a push as well. After that there are some questions.

Converted running back Devyn Ford is going to get a shot this spring. He's an unknown at safety, so there's not really much to say. He's athletic enough to play safety and his size fits well, but does he have the feel for the game needed? We don't know, but we should have a better sense of that by the end of the spring. If he can pick up the defense we'll start to see some flashes of that during the spring.

Sophomore Ben Minich showed flashes last spring, but staying healthy has been a concern so far. We don't yet know if Minich can stay healthy, and if he can meet the physical demands needed for the position. What we do know is that Minich can really run and he's instinctive. If Minich can stay healthy he'll have a chance to make some noise this spring and could be a bit of a breakout player.

Freshman Kennedy Urlacher needs a lot of work at safety, but he has good speed and he can hit. His high school film is filled with him flying downhill and shutting down the run game. He'll likely be a favorite of Biagi on special teams, but Urlacher needs to show he can handle the coverage rigors of the safety position. 

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