The twist and turns of fate that have led Matthias Farley to his first start as a Notre Dame safety Saturday night might be as unique of a story as anyone's on the field.
His path to playing time started with a lousy high school soccer team his sophomore year at home in Charlotte, N.C. A two-year crash course in football earned him a scholarship to Notre Dame. A position switch and two season-ending injuries later, Farley finds himself thrust into a crucial role for the 11th-ranked Irish under the lights against longtime rival Michigan.
“It’s crazy to me to think about how it all started and how it all began,” he said Wednesday night. “I’m sure it’s even crazier from the outside in, but I’m really calm about the whole thing and just confident about what I have to do.”
Farley switched from a scout team wide receiver to the defensive backfield during spring practice and has steadily climbed the depth chart since then. Junior Austin Collinsworth’s shoulder surgery bumped him into the regular rotation during fall camp. Fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter’s ruptured Achilles tendon in the third quarter against Michigan State was closer to a violent shove for Farley, who is now the third former offensive player starting in the Irish secondary.
The rise has been overwhelmingly fast for a player still in his first season of eligibility, but Farley appears to have the mental wherewithal to take his new role in stride.Slaughter, one of Notre Dame’s smartest and most experience players, has been tutoring Farley in the film room and in practice for the past six months, long before either imagined that Farley would be taking his place in the lineup before the end of September.
Slaughter, didn’t skip a beat in coaching Farley after he found out that his career at Notre Dame could be over. He started giving his protégé pointers after Farley’s first series on the field against the Spartans. By the time he hobbled off the field at the end of the 20-3 win, he was ready to pass the torch.
“He just told me to step up,” Farley said. We were walking off the field against Michigan State and he was like, ‘You gotta step up, Matthias. I didn’t try to teach you all this stuff for no reason.’”
Slaughter had successful surgery on the tendon Wednesday morning and is expected to recover in six months. With him on the sidelines, Farley will have to expand what he knows even further. He and senior Zeke Motta are in a “fluid situation” bouncing between the field and boundary positions depending on game situations.
Farley has been a football sponge from the first time he stepped on to the field as a junior in high school. He had to play catch up after spending his freshman and sophomore years as a forward on the Charlotte Catholic soccer team. Two years of frustrating finishes on the pitch while he watched his classmates in pads make back-to-back trips to the state championship convinced Farley to try football. His natural athleticism and an ability to learn on the fly helped him get noticed as a potential college player in just one season.
Junior Lo Wood was the first of two Irish defensive backs to tear his Achilles' this fall.
“Matthias is a quick learner,” Motta said. “That’s something special to be able to pick things up quickly and apply it out on the field. He hasn’t played football for too long but you can tell that his athletic ability is helping in his preparation.”
A strange coincidence
In a much more cruel and ironic twist, the most vulnerable part of Notre Dame’s otherwise staunch defense this season — its secondary — has now twice been struck with Achilles’ injuries in a month’s time.
Slaughter’s non-contact “pop” that left him on the turf during the first play of the second half Saturday night seemed strangely similar to the description of an injury that sidelined projected starting cornerback Lo Wood at the end of fall camp. Wood was backpedaling during a drill in practice when he felt the same pop and was done for the year.
Injuries to the Achilles' tendon frequently occur in distance runners as a result of overuse, according to Brian Boyls-White, a trainer at the National Center for Sports Safety. Boyls-White, who also worked with the Miami football team for three years, said the Achilles tendon is one of the toughest to cut through or tear. Roughly 230,000 Americans report Achilles’ problems each year, but most are not as serious as the ruptures suffered by Slaughter and Wood.
“You’ll find a lot of times there is an injury of the year. You’ll see a lot of tendencies for some reason. A few years ago in the NFL it was sports hernias. Everybody was getting sports hernias,” Boyls-White said.
He said the problems could be a result of overuse or an improbable balance on strength or flexibility between the muscles in a player’s shin and in his calf. Or it could just be an unfortunate coincidence.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he thinks it’s most likely the last option and not a pattern that should be cause for concern.
“I think it's definitely unusual to get two of them in one year,” he said. “I just think that fate played a hand in this one because we do all the things necessary to have those guys ready to go.”
Players, too, were confident that nothing they were doing brought on the pair on uncommon injuries.
“It's crazy that it happened to two guys, but I’m not worried about it,” said Farley, who has more than enough to keep his mind busy this week.