FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Matthias Farley’s path to the BCS title game is far from conventional.
He’ll start at safety for top-ranked Notre Dame on Monday night, when the Fighting Irish take on No. 2 Alabama to decide this season’s college football national champion.
That notion would have seemed impossible four years ago.
It didn’t even look all that likely even four months ago. Yet here he is, a rookie in terms of playing defense, set to potentially take on a huge role in the BCS title game.
“He’s a great player and he’s done a great job so far,” said Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta, who starts alongside Farley. “I wouldn’t expect anything less. His preparation and how he’s approached that transition, I think it’s been great. He’s definitely accepted the challenge.”
And that challenge was a daunting one.
To fully understand why Farley’s role has been such a key for Notre Dame this season, the calendar would have to be flipped back four years to when he decided to give up soccer and play football – for the first time. He went from the pitch to the pigskin as a high school junior, wound up catching 74 passes for more than 1,500 yards and 22 touchdowns in his two seasons at that level, and was part of Brian Kelly’s first full recruiting class with the Fighting Irish.
Once he got to Notre Dame, however, he just couldn’t get on the field as a receiver.
So he switched to safety. And then starter Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. Farley was put in the lineup and never looked back.
“He’s not afraid of anything, any challenge,” Kelly said. “If you ask him if he’s got a tape of Portuguese, he’ll learn Portuguese. You know what I mean? There’s nothing that he looks at and says, ‘I can’t do this.’ He’s got so much pride and so much confidence in himself that any task that you ask him to do, he’s going to find a way.”
Against Alabama, Farley will need to do just that.
The Crimson Tide has thrown for 27 touchdowns this season and averages 38.5 points a game. Notre Dame’s scoring defense leads the nation, allowing only 10.3 points a game (a mere 0.4 points better than Alabama’s defense).
“Having people like Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter there to get guidance from, to get advice from, they have all been huge parts of my development,” said Farley, who also credited assistant coaches Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks. “And then just putting in the work myself, actually wanting to go meet with coaches after and see what I can work on and all that kind of stuff. A lot of it is just having great people around me to help develop me.”
Then again, some of it is simply personal commitment as well.
Farley broke his right hand on Oct. 27 in Notre Dame’s win against Oklahoma. An injury like that could keep someone sidelined for many weeks.
Farley didn’t even miss many days.
Broke the hand on Saturday, had surgery to insert two plates and six screws on the following Tuesday, practiced the next day and played that weekend against Pittsburgh – the game in which the Irish needed three overtimes before keeping the undefeated season and national-title hopes alive with a 29-26 win.
And Kelly said Farley played a big role in that.
“The kid broke his hand, had surgery and played the same week,” Kelly said. “Now the first half, he didn’t play very well because he was still thinking about his hand. He was challenged at halftime and came back and played great football in the second half. He’s just a special kid that when you challenge him he’s going to come through for you.”
That seems to be a trend in the Notre Dame secondary.
The majority of the group seems to be converted receivers, like Farley. He had some growing pains this season — he got beaten for what should have been a long early touchdown for Miami in their game in October, but caught a break when the ball was dropped. Yet the Irish say he got better every week.
“Having been on offense, you can kind of think of how the receiver thinks,” Farley said. “But you don’t necessarily know where they’re going to go.”
Seems kind of fitting, since four years ago, Farley had no idea he’d be going to the BCS title game.
• Associated Press Writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind. contributed to this story.