Of all the subtle changes and sharp left turns on Notre Dame’s depth chart during the past month of football, sophomore Matthias Farley’s rise might be the most unexpected new development of training camp.
Sophomore Matthias Farley has made a quick rise to second-string safety.
A new quarterback was a guarantee. The cornerback position was anyone’s to take. But Farley’s jump from the back of a large pack of potential safeties to the team’s third option behind entrenched starters Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter was a surprise to most, even Farley himself.
“Honestly, I really just wanted to be a good special teams player and learn all that I needed to learn and get some game experience that way,” he said. “I wanted to get into the rotation if possible. My realistic goal for myself at the beginning going into camp was just to make myself as valuable of an asset on special teams as I could.”
Farley had to rethink that outlook during the first week of practice when he says, “it just clicked.” Nearly 20 pounds lighter than at the start of spring practice and with the first real extended coaching he’s had in the secondary, the 195-pound sophomore suddenly understood how to put himself in a position to use all of his natural ability.
The learning curve is still remarkably steep for Farley, who didn’t put on a pair of shoulder pads until his junior year of high school. After two years of playing soccer, he decided to join the more successful Charlotte Catholic football team in North Carolina. His team at the time had gaps to fill at wide receiver and defensive back, and Farley filled them both. He said he played with a talented quarterback and a highly-recruited corps of linebackers, which made his transition to the sport seamless.
Defense came more naturally to Farley, but when he showed up in South Bend the Irish were in need of a little more depth at slot receiver. He was left to fend for himself on the scout team for most of the season. He picked up snippets of how to practice defense while trying in vain to challenge seniors Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton each week. It wasn’t until after ankle surgery this winter that he started to find the coaching he needed to start his climb up the secondary ladder.
“Quite frankly we’ve got two outstanding coaches back there in [Bobby] Elliott and [Kerry] Cooks,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after announcing last week that Farley had at least pulled even with his competition for the third spot in the Irish safety rotation. “I think the combination of getting that coaching and getting the opportunity and physically being in the best shape of his life … all those things coming together at once have allowed him to grow as a player.”
Farley credits Elliott and Cooks for pushing him to lose weight over the summer and loosen his hips while tracking receivers. He pointed first to Slaughter and Motta who took time this summer to teach him the small nuances of the game that one can normally only learn by trial and error.
“Just things as small as alignment on certain plays. How much a one or two step difference can make. It’s a game of inches whether you make the play or don’t make the play. They see that kind of stuff,” he said.
The path to joining Motta and Slaughter got a little bit clearer this summer for Farley when Austin Collinsworth had to have his shoulder surgically repaired. The junior was a shoo-in to replace Smith in the three-man rotation Notre Dame’s favors for its safeties. With Collinsworth sidelined until at least the end of October, Farley squeezed past fifth-year senior Dan McCarthy, senior Chris Salvi and a large group of freshmen to seize the opening.
The closest thing Farley has seen to game action in his young career is the Blue-Gold game in April, where he intercepted a Tommy Rees pass and made three solo tackles. He said that game helped show him he deserved on the field and painted a clearer picture of what he had to do to get there in the fall.
He’ll start to tack on real game experience a little more than a week from now against Navy, an offense that sets up particular well for Farley to get on the field. Slaughter in the past has bumped up to an outside linebacker role against the triple option. Farley’s physical play and still-decent size make him a good fit to replace Slaughter on Notre Dame’s back end against the triple option. The Midshipmen look like they could be the next serendipitous step on Farley’s fast transition into football.