Forty years ago, the NCAA eliminated freshman ineligibility for good. Freshmen were permitted to play in 1951 during the Korean War, but they were not allowed to compete in the ensuing 20 years on the varsity level until they became sophomores.
Luther Bradley started all 11 games at strong safety for the 1973 national champs.
First Freshman Safety To See Action
Although many schools recruited Luther Bradley as a running back, Irish head coach Ara Parseghian saw him as the prototype strong safety, where the Irish needed Bradley’s instant impact in 1973.
First Freshman Safety To Start
Bradley was the starter on opening day in 1973 against Northwestern, and says his nerves were frayed prior to the game — until Parseghian took him aside and told him he wouldn’t be out there unless he had complete confidence in him. He would go on to become the all-time interceptions leader at Notre Dame (17) and the school’s greatest all-around defensive back, earning All-America honors at corner for the 1977 national champs after starring at safety for the 1973 national champs.
Most Recent Freshman Safety To See Action
Current senior Zeke Motta arrived as an early enrollee in 2009 and was a mainstay on all four special teams. He also was inserted in special situations at safety, finishing with 11:06 playing time.
Five Best True Freshman Safeties
1. Luther Bradley (1973) — He rivals classmate and defensive end Ross Browner as the greatest freshman game-changer in Notre Dame history. Both started from Day 1 during a national title campaign, with Bradley stepping in at strong safety, where he combined linebacker hitting ability with his 6-2 size to complement his corner cover skills. He paced the team in both interceptions (6) and passes broken up (11), freshman standards that still remain at Notre Dame.
2. Randy Harrison (1974)— After attrition took its toll at safety on Parseghian’s final team, the Indiana native stepped in at free safety and recorded an astounding 296:17 playing time. He led the secondary in tackles (57), was second in passes broken up (7) and scored touchdowns on both of his interceptions, totaling 84 yards. In the 13-11 Orange Bowl victory versus Alabama, he made seven tackles.
3. Bobby Taylor (1992) — When he stepped into the starting lineup for the last seven games at free safety, the Irish became as good as anyone in the country during a 7-0 finish, with the last four coming against ranked teams. He tied for the team lead in passes broken up (9), made 37 tackles and blocked an extra point that made a difference in a 17-16 victory versus Penn State.
4. Todd Lyght (1987) — One of Notre Dame’s greatest corners ever began his career at safety — although he was initially projected to be Tim Brown’s heir at flanker. Lyght played in all 12 games his rookie year and started twice at free safety. In 145:40 he recorded 29 tackles, blocked a punt, broke up two passes, intercepted a pass and caused a fumble.
5. Tom Carter (1990) — Exclusively a high school quarterback, Carter made six straight starts at free safety, beginning with the second game of the season, a 20-19 victory at Michigan State. In 162:59 he was credited with 19 tackles.
• Many of Notre Dame’s most prominent safeties in the last decade did not play as freshmen. They include Tom Zbikowski (2003), Kyle McCarthy (2005), recent first-round pick Harrison Smith (2007), and current fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter (2008). Chinedum Ndukwe (2003) played as a receiver his freshman year, while David Bruton (2005) and Sergio Brown (2006) saw almost all their freshman action on special teams.
• In the same 1990 season where Carter started six times, he was replaced by fellow freshman Willie Clark in the last three games. Clark made a game high 12 tackles and recovered a fumble in the 10-9 Orange Bowl loss to Colorado.
• It would seem safety is easier to play as a freshman than cornerback. Bradley, Lyght, Taylor and Carter became corners after their freshman seasons. Carter joined Bradley and Lyght as first-round NFL picks, and joined Taylor (a second-round selection) as players who went to the pros after their junior year.
How About 2012?
Because Slaughter, Motta and Dan McCarthy are all in their final seasons of eligibility, and Austin Collinsworth has only one more in 2013, four safeties were recruited: Nick Baratti, C.J. Prosise, Elijah Shumate and John Turner, and a fifth, Chris Badger, will have four years of eligibility after returning this spring from a two-year Mormon mission.
Among the five newcomers, we believe Shumate might have the best chance of cracking the two-deep (maybe even at nickel), but it will be a difficult road to maneuver.
Special teams are usually laden with safety-like prospects, so we can envision at least two maybe earning their first monogram there while the others preserve a year of eligibility.
New safeties coach Bobby Elliott will have a juggling act on his hands. Once the season starts, all the attention has to be on preparation for the next opponent, not working individually with the younger prospects. That is reserved far more for the spring.
“It will be an interesting year next year trying to bring the young guys along as we try to win games,” Elliott said. “We’ve got a group of older guys that we gotta win with, and we’ve got to continue to bring those younger guys along — not just the freshmen coming in, but the young guys that are already here — for the future … college football is a developmental game, not like pro football.”