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Ahead of Schedule

Nicky Baratti’s cell phone and Notre Dame Stadium started buzzing at about the same time last Saturday. In one sudden leap, the Irish safety stepped literally and figuratively into the bright lights of big-time college football.

Freshman Nicky Baratti made his first career interception against Michigan.

The freshman plucked a halfback pass out of the air along Notre Dame’s goal line during the final minute of the first quarter in a 13-6 primetime win over Michigan. The interception was one of the first of many big defensive plays that brought Notre Dame Stadium to its feet Saturday night, and the outside world to its thumbs. Baratti said he had 40 some odd text messages to scroll through when he checked his phone after the game. He also had about 250 new followers on his Twitter account.

“It was pretty cool,” Baratti said. “I kept refreshing and I’d have five more [followers] every time.”

Baratti is the most recent in a growing group of true freshmen who have made dazzling, earlier-than-expected debuts for the Irish so far this season. He joins defensive end Sheldon Day and fellow defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate as a player who has already made impact plays during his first month with the team. The interception came on his first real series of football at Notre Dame, though he did play some mop-up minutes in the season opening win against Navy.

It was also his first significant series playing safety in three years. The Texas 5A All-State tight end also played quarterback, running back, wide receiver and punter for Klein Oak High School, but had not been in the defensive backfield since he was a sophomore before arriving in South Bend.

This summer he expected to have a year on special teams to learn the ins and outs of backpedaling and pass coverage again before being thrust on to the field. A pair of injuries to junior Austin Collinsworth and fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter threw that timetable out the window. Irish coach Brian Kelly said the versatility from playing so many different positions ended up helping Baratti get on the field sooner than anticipated.

“When you talk about where he came from and the football program in Texas, a very good program, well coached, had all of those things going for him. And then any time that you can play quarterback, tight end, can play defense, he just has a real good sense for the game,” Kelly said.

Baratti is one of the better natural tacklers in the young group of defensive backs, which made him a natural fit to put on the field against notoriously slippery Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. The Irish coaches gave him a few series to see the Wolverines offense firsthand from the safety of the sideline before throwing him on the field to help put a stop to their most sustained drive of the first three quarters.

“It’s just different from seeing it on film than seeing it in person,” Baratti said about the benefit of getting a few drives to soak in the atmosphere. “You can really see how the receivers come off the ball or come off a run block. So I think that helps you out before you step on the field.”

The game had slowed down by the time Baratti lined up with his heels on the goal line for the interception. The ball thrown by Michigan running back Vincent Smith seemed to just be floating in the air, Baratti said, making it an easy ball to snatch.

Baratti’s play Saturday night, along with the good showing from his young counterparts, gave Notre Dame a reason to hope that its secondary woes will fade from the ranks of its primary problems this season. For a group that had as many as four freshmen on the field together at once against a ranked opponent, they showed no signs of shrinking on a big stage.

The freshman will head back to Texas this weekend to watch Klein Oak plays it crosstown rival and gear up for the rest of his first college season. He might even have a few minutes to catch up with all his new social media followers.

“I haven’t really checked out who they are yet but I’m sure I will when I have some down time,” he said.

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