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Core of Irish defense beginning to emerge

Apr 15, 2014, 1:40 PM EDT

Brian Kelly,Brian Van Gorder Brian Kelly,Brian Van Gorder

Making an impact during a spring game is always a good thing. But sometimes, the not making one is a good thing, too.

Saturday, Irish fans were excited to see how the pieces of Brian VanGorder’s defense are coming together. How would Sheldon Day look playing defensive tackle? Would KeiVarae Russell follow up a great spring with a big Blue-Gold game? How would Max Redfield look at safety?

None of those questions were provided answers on Saturday. And that was perfectly fine with Brian Kelly, who kept some of his best defenders off the field.

“Sheldon Day played a cameo role today. Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield, a lot of those guys got in and got out early,” Kelly said after the game. “So we feel like we’ve identified some of our really legitimate playmakers and then we’ve identified some individuals that will really play roles for us.”

Even in our brief look at Smith, he was incredibly productive. But the fact that Day got in and out of the game without injury was enough for Kelly, as the head coach identified him as the team’s best “on the ball defender” after the game, certainly not new news for those following along.

That Redfield was classified in this group has to be a positive sign for the young safety. After all but being forced into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl by Kelly, Redfield has taken the step forward this spring that his head coach demanded, looking more and more like a piece of the bedrock that this group desperately needs.

“Max Redfield has had a really good back end of the spring,” Kelly said. “Probably the last seven practices, he has really stepped his game up and his knowledge of what we’re doing has  been really good.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case last season, with Redfield stuck behind veterans Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth on the depth chart. But Farley has shifted outside, playing nickel back and corner on Saturday. And while Collinsworth had been singled out as one of the defenders that quickly picked up VanGorder’s new scheme, the fifth-year safety was on the field quite a bit Saturday, leading the team in tackles but also getting beat for a touchdown by C.J. Prosise.


After finishing last season strong, it’s clear that Collinsworth has a role in this defense. But safety Elijah Shumate made a few big plays on Saturday and Eilar Hardy played some productive football last season as well. With the addition of Cody Riggs in June, that’s another defender who will spend a lot of time on the field, creating a very good problem for VanGorder and secondary coach Kerry Cooks.

It’s all part of a new look defense that will be handled differently than Bob Diaco’s. And while the Irish will certainly miss a core group of defenders that played a lot of snaps, the roster’s depth will allow this defense to be optimized by its personnel.

“I think what Brian has done is he has found players that maybe have not played a lot of football for us, that can have roles in assisting and helping our defense,” Kelly said. “And I think that that’s what his experience brings.  Here is somebody with a lot of experience that can take an individual and say, all right, here is where he can help us.

“So I think that that’s what the spring has allowed us from a personnel standpoint defensively to do.  And secondly, we’ve added a scheme that certainly has some more pieces to it that we didn’t have in the past.”

After 15 practices building the foundation, the core of the defense is starting to emerge. Sheldon Day will lead the defensive line. Jaylon Smith will anchor the linebackers. KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield will headline a very deep secondary.

Different, for certain.

And while the strength of this unit won’t be in the trenches, we’ll see in the fall if the  enhanced athleticism can carry the day.




  1. 25kgold - Apr 15, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    Anyone missing Diaco? (nope)

    • irishwilliamsport - Apr 16, 2014 at 8:50 AM

      Double nope, I’ve said it before, we had a schematic disadvantage with Bob D.

    • irish4006 - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:26 PM

      Really? I am glad to have a more than capable replacement, but Diaco did a lot for this program with what he had at his disposal. Maybe he reached his ceiling and the program would not have become any better, maybe he did not. Do we need to take a swing at him?

      • irishwilliamsport - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:00 PM

        Really ! Watch this years Defense.

      • irish4006 - Apr 17, 2014 at 1:16 PM

        Ah, the new Oracle emerges. I will be watching and I hope you are right for the sake of the team. I do believe we have a good group of players; more talented, bigger, stronger bunch than any I saw in the Davie, Willingham, Weis era.

        We all thought last year’s defense was going to be just as good as 2012, if not better. Sure, we were losing Manti, Grace was billed as a very capable replacement. Secondary was going to be much improved (on paper, we didn’t really have a secondary in 2012 after Slaughter went down pretty early in the season). What happened?

    • mtndguy - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:36 PM

      Not yet. It’s a little early to jump on the VanGorder band wagon, don’t you think?

      • 1historian - Apr 18, 2014 at 10:53 AM

        Of course it is, but it’s fun, so we do it.

  2. ndfenian - Apr 15, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    The Redfield thing is a little strange. He’s a true sophomore with only one game of starting experience, yet he’s so good now that he doesn’t need to play much at all in the spring game?? And he is already being crowned as a starter by the coaching staff? What good does that do?

    • timvinc - Apr 15, 2014 at 4:52 PM

      I’m hoping it’s a sign that they’ve seen more than they need to of him this spring. I think they’re trying to limit injuries as much as possible (not to mention scouting reports).

    • irishwilliamsport - Apr 17, 2014 at 1:05 PM

      When you think back to some of those losses other than 2012, Tulsa ? Getting blown out by Navy, 20 seconds left at Michigan and they run a wheel route and have 3 receivers deep vs 2 defensive backs and score in 2 plays, no answer for Stanford or Michigan except for 2012, so many 3rd down plays given up last year.

  3. danirish - Apr 15, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    My mea culpa to Cole Luke – during training it seemed he was always giving up the “big play,” but he played well in the Spring game. It would be nice to have a great backfield on both sides of the ball.


    • irishdog80 - Apr 15, 2014 at 11:57 PM

      The videos we get to see are heavily edited by the ND staff and I am sure Kelly signs off on them before they are released. That said, they are going to err on the side of the offense making plays with the occasional big play by the defense–the QB and receivers look good and mix in some misinformation for opponents scouting and you get what we get to see. Cole Luke is the real deal and will be a big part of the defense in 2014 as many of our opponents have to air it out to keep up with our high powered offense. Add in a Jameis Winston air attack and we need plenty of able bodied defensive backs to beat FSU…if Winston plays.

  4. domer77blowsgoats - Apr 15, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    this kind of depth is a bad sign for Navy

    • papadec - Apr 15, 2014 at 6:18 PM

      and everyone else on the schedule & in the playoffs.

    • nudeman - Apr 15, 2014 at 10:50 PM

      Beat Navy. That’s all I ask

      • domer77blowsgoats - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:49 PM

        Welcome back Nude – just not the same without you here – while NDG&B provides some comic relief it in no way matched you mastery of the ND blog universe – must have been a long couple of months sitting on the sideline, feel for you bro

      • nudeman - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:54 PM

        A welcome back hug from goat
        Just not sure where to go with that. Suspicious.

        Beat Navy

    • ndgoldandblue - Apr 15, 2014 at 11:01 PM

      Exactly. Now, you’re coming around.

      • domer77blowsgoats - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:46 PM

        yeah about that… maybe I should have put the /sarc tag after my initial comment?

  5. onward2victory - Apr 15, 2014 at 3:31 PM

    Agreed that the secondary looks really strong, but any good defense must first and foremost be able to stop the run. This is my greatest concern for the D going into the season. However I was impressed with how they played against the run in the B&G game, while also generating a solid pass rush. I’m still very concerned that the D-line is 1 or 2 key injuries away from being unable to stop teams like Stanford and Navy from rushing for 300 yards.

    • irishdog80 - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:03 AM

      Stanford’s power game is always a concern if we are thin on the defensive line. I am less concerned about Navy since their run game is predicated on speed/quickness and deception. We do better against Navy when we have athletes on the field that are disciplined and play their responsibility. It’s almost better if we don’t play too many big d-linemen–they will only get chop blocked into nagging injuries that hurt us down the line. We should play like the Baltimore Ravens with a bunch of big athletes moving around without their hands on the ground and not giving our defense away before the play. We need to out athlete Navy and limit the big runs.

      • onward2victory - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:19 AM

        That’s a good point about Navy. If we just got athletes on the field we should be able to stop them.

        So I guess my concern lies more with teams like Michigan, FSU, Stanford, and USC that all have the ability to run the ball well if our D line underperforms or gets a couple injuries. And other than Jaylon, we don’t have the linebackers to be able to bail out the D line if it comes to that. But if we can stay healthy and stop the run, this defense could be very very good.

      • ndfenian - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:23 PM

        Louis Nix would have helped a lot against Navy last year.

      • irishdog80 - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:54 PM

        Playing Air Force and Navy back to back literally took the legs out from our D-line. Duke clobbered Navy last year 35-7 and I can guarantee you that Duke does not have any Louis Nix’s on their line. We have bigger, stronger and faster athletes than Navy. We just need to get the right mix on the field and make sure they play assignment football.

        That said, a healthy and agile Louis Nix would have helped against Navy. He would have occupied a couple of blockers and freed up some of our linebackers.

      • irishwilliamsport - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:07 PM

        Isn’t it obvious, it’s coaching…period. Duke clobbers Navy and we have to hang on to beat them. Same thing with special teams, punt returns, kick coverage…basic coaching.

  6. goirishgo - Apr 15, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    I’ve been on the Shumate bandwagon for some time now. While he did not play well LY prior to getting hurt he is very athletic. In fact I thought he made the most impressive defensive play of the Spring game on a defended pass. Reached over a receiver with his right arm while airborn to knock a pass away without making contact. Pretty stellar for a 6’0″, nearly 220 lb. guy to make. Big time hitter to top it off.

    • upthera44 - Apr 15, 2014 at 6:19 PM

      Actually he plowed through Carlisle’s body on that pass break up, so it was arguably a pass interference. Which is why I wasn’t that impressed by it. Rewatch the highlights. Maybe you’re thinking of Cole Luke’s awesome, completely clean break up.

      • mediocrebob - Apr 16, 2014 at 5:04 AM

        And, had the throw been on time, Amir walks into the end zone

    • ndfenian - Apr 16, 2014 at 1:24 PM

      Yeah, unfortunately Shumate’s play would have been pass interference in a real game.

  7. notredameirish1980 - Apr 15, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    What we are seeing is a migration to multifaceted defense that will allow them to keep up with spread teams and provide a pass rush by using multiple avenues of attack. We have a lot of solid to very good front seven personnel, and now have a scheme to put them in the best position to succeed. The weakness will come against Stanford, but the problems with Navy have always been execution and quickness to the point of attack, not being over-powered. Last year’s ‘phenomenal’ D-line was an illusion that could provide no pass rush and still was not dominant against the run, combined with indecisive interior LB play. I think this version will be superior if the LB’s can get to the point of attack and clog up the interior passing lanes combined with more aggressive line play.

  8. papadec - Apr 15, 2014 at 7:35 PM

    Keith – thanks for the 2:09 of B & G highlights on the sidebar. It was better than nothing.

  9. gtizzo - Apr 15, 2014 at 8:14 PM

    Secondary looks solid, the pass rush might be better then expected, defensive has a solid anchor in Day. Offense looks like it is ready for a break out season. I don’t see to many teams enjoying the nothing of ND on the schedule. The depth is amazing on both sides of the ball. I will call it right know Jaylon Smith leads the team with 80 plus tackles. Day puts himself on the NFL watch lists.

  10. yaketyyacc - Apr 16, 2014 at 5:38 AM

    call it a feeling, hunch or crossed fingers, but the defense Van Gorder is shaping will be one of the best we’ve ever had. most new coaches tell you what you want to hear, namely, we will win the National Championship in the first year of my coaching here. usually hot air. but Van Gorder is going to prove himself through a tenacious, savy and aggressive defense in his first year at Notre Dame.

  11. ndrocks2 - Apr 16, 2014 at 8:53 AM

    What I read was Day, Smith & the backfield, nothing else. Way to early to tell anything, incoming freshmen & Riggs will have an opportunity to see the field as well. This is a work in progress with a lot of work left to do. Not that is wasn’t expected with the number of players we lost from our front seven.

  12. irishwilliamsport - Apr 16, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    I think the defense will be very good this year and surprise a lot of people. BVG likes to stuff the run and force blitzing 3rd and longs with man to man coverage, can’t wait to see it.

    I am continually perplexed when I keep hearing the same thing from BK for 5 years now about how the players on both sides of the ball are still learning. I would love to hear him say that someone’s got it down pat and can do it in their sleep. Are things so complex ? Cincinnati guys got it but ND guys can’t ? I just don’t get it.

    Lastly, BVG’s game plan vs. Navy will be outstanding and the Middies go home spanked.

  13. jimbasil - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    I thought the D played as a unit which may not sound like much but consider a new system/coach and they were all basically on the same page on every play. Okay, they were doing basic stuff but they did it together. The OLine surprised me. They didn’t appear to know the Defense they were play against. Not one particular player just all around not functioning as a unit or at least not functioning at a high level at this time. But overall the team as a whole looked like they were disciplined in their duties. Maybe this is a sign the offense will up the tempo this year.

    My big question was, do these QB’s only throw fastballs? That’s usually a sign they’re late on passes. Whatever happened to touch passes and knowing where to put the ball ahead of the route by the receiver? However that fastball by MZ for the TD was a beauty, something we haven’t seen in some time. More, it was a heck of a catch.

  14. nudeman - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    I have been reading here and elsewhere a lot of high 5-ing re the new def. coord’r and the departure of Diaco. While I understand the sentiment, here is my take on the D:

    1. While there are some studs, overall the talent is average or slightly above average at best
    2. The D-Line is a potential serious weak link. Maybe Jarron Jones or Romeo step up; maybe Day takes the next step to stardom. But I’m not sure there’s a lot else there.
    3. BVG’s attacking style of defense sounds like a wonderful breath of fresh air after Diaco’s bend but don’t break approach. But everything has a price. There will be more sacks and turnovers, but there will also be more big plays given up. I can just see the “Fire Van Gorder” posts now when they give up a critical 38 yard run to UM on 3rd and 2.
    4. If you thought Diaco sucked, go back and look at the record. He was pretty damn good. As for last year, Tuitt was almost a complete non factor and Nix was overrated. I think we fell in love with him and his schtick and it masked some so-so play. So taking that into account, and considering there were guys like Farley, Collinsworth, Jackson, Ishaq, Fox and Carlo as STARTERS, Diaco did about as well as anyone could have, including BVG. And btw, the jury is in re: Ishaq.

    Navy scares me.

    • jimbasil - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:56 AM

      Nix Overrated? C’mon.

    • standingdomer - Apr 16, 2014 at 12:49 PM

      I agree with #4. While I still think Nix was great, he’d have had to be transcendant to live up to his reputation, and he clearly wasn’t. This is actually why i have a glimmer of hope for our D this year. Our D wasn’t all that bad-ass last year, and we have a decent group of guys who i believe will show continued development.

      Not sure Day has too much more room under the ceiling left, but think Jones will be a pleasant surprise. Sometimes it just takes time to get your sea legs under you. With our depth on the line as thin as it is, many rosary beads will be worn down praying these guys stay healthy.

      Haven’t seen the flash of brilliance from Redfield, but happy to hear he was picking up the new system better in the back half of the spring.

    • ndgoldandblue - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:08 PM

      I haven’t done any of the high five-ing, but I’m not pessimistic about VanGorder either. The guy gets a blank slate for me. If the defense improves, thumbs up. If it’s another incarnation of Jon Tenuta, big thumbs down. Either way, I don’t think we’ll have a good idea until Stanford. The Blue-Gold game never shows us much on the defensive side.

      As for Navy, I was at the debacle in the Meadowlands. Since then, I’ve never felt good about the match-up against them. It seems like the coaches and players just want to limit injuries against these triple-option teams. Just look at the highlights from last year’s game. From the get-go, the d-linemen were in sort of a reclined, elevated three-point stance so that they could keep an eye on the lineman in front of them and protect their legs. This probably isn’t the most ideal approach, but I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want some guy that I outweigh by 50 pounds taking out my knees so that he could gain a schematic advantage.

      • nudeman - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:34 PM

        I’m fine with Van Gorder, and don’t know what Tenuta’s background was before ND, but BVG has a pretty good track record.

        The other point I made that’s worth repeating to the Diaco haters is this: Please tell me the name of the DC who could have been successful with these guys in the starting lineup: Fox, Carlo, Jackson, Tuitt, Farley, Collinsworth and Ishaq. That’s SEVEN guys out of eleven who just have no business starting for a BCS caliber team. Who can excel with that?

        And as I said, we overrated Nix because of his Irish Chocolate personna. He wasn’t “bad” but he wasn’t great either. And was out of shape too.

        The Irish D won’t be elite again until they get a couple more studs on the DL.

      • irish4006 - Apr 17, 2014 at 1:27 PM

        nude, as much as I hate to agree with you regarding Tuitt and Nix; I sort of do. Nix was a little out of shape, but still occupied 2 blockers at all time. Tuitt seemed to be playing in slow motion for much of the season. Tuitt, however, would start for any BCS team, but would likely have been benched if he didn’t pick up the pace.

        Also, Tuitt, Nix and Day only took like 30 snaps together the entire season. This can hamstring any team. It’s a team sport and players do tend to draw energy from each other.

        BTW, I am hearing that this is the season when Ishaq will finally leave up to his potential. I also heard that Tommy will get a special 5th year of eligibility in a designated relief QB category.

    • irishwilliamsport - Apr 16, 2014 at 2:27 PM

      No one said Diaco sucked, contrary to a few here who think the defense was “elite” the past 4 years I disagree. 2010, 2011 (Manti’s sophomore and junior years by the way) and 2013 were not elite defenses. No way, check the stats and look at the results, watch the games again. Three years of head scratching results giving up back breaking plays on 3rd down and 2 Navy losses and nearly a 3rd last year. 2012 was an elite defense absolutely and now a few of those guys are in the pros.

    • mtndguy - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:32 PM

      Louis Nix will undoubtedly go pro. Less than 2% of college players go to the pros. That puts Nix in the 98th percentile. Not sure who “rated” him better than that to make you say he was “over rated”. It was certainly obvious when Nix didn’t play.

      • ibleedirish - Apr 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM

        I hear what your saying re: Diaco. Classic case of don’t know what you got till its gone. He was responsible for some very formidable defenses, with an overall lack of elite talent as you pointed out. He and Kelly put together some amazing game plans to win games they really shouldnt have. I mean, their philosophy in 2012 was literally, “keep the ball in the hands of the opponents offense”! Nothing short of brilliant and both Diaco/Kelly deserve immense credit for that. So of course for the most part Diaco was a plus.

        However, regarding Navy, he was a BIG minus. I have said a few times that I have never seen a worse game plan for attacking the option. It was triple face-palm bad. No exaggeration, I’ve seen better defense of the option in high school. So, am I nervous about next year? Yep. Worried about Navy? No, not me. Finally, bigger, faster, stronger, with the help of a scheme that can’t be worse (option-wise), will win the day.

  15. 4horsemenrideagain - Apr 16, 2014 at 11:33 AM

    lots of talk about navy in these posts. and I thought FSU was the returning Nat’l champ, but hey, when in rome…

    preparing for navy has to be like root canal for def. coordinators. you face the looks they give and their scheme once, maybe twice a year (if you happen to have ga. tech or air force), and yet you probably spend 4 times as much time preparing for them as you do for any other team on your schedule, precisely because you only see the scheme once or twice. so you’re watching film weeks in advance, and probably working in some reps here and there with the squad even before the actual week of prep because there’s so much to put in that you don’t have in your def. scheme the other weeks of the season.

    I will go out on a limb and predict kendall moore has a big game against Navy this year. moore hasn’t yet evolved into the every down MLB many hoped he’d one day become, but watch the highlights of the Blue Gold game, the young man take on a block, run downhill and pound ball carriers. that’s what he does. he puts a hat on guys. he may not be the one to get out into the flat or pick up a tight end coming up the seam, but he can go straight ahead and hit and this will go a long way to making it a long day for Navy. Jaylon smith locking down the outside will also be a big part of this year’s Navy game. The play Smith made on Folston in the first quarter last week is what I’m thinking of. he identified the play, took a good angle and even maybe surprised folston with how fast he arrived at the ball.

    • ndfenian - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:07 PM

      If Kendall Moore can be a run-stopper, I would be willing to live with his limitations in pass coverage, because who are our proven run-stoppers? Jaylon is the only really proven guy in that front-seven.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:35 PM

        I think he can be an effective run-stopper, though I don’t expect him to see the field on many 2nd or 3rd downs. I like the way he tackles; like he’s trying to knock a hole in the guy.

        on the other hand, I was watching Jaylon Smith playing MLB last Saturday to see how well he picked up the tight end coming off the line. on one play, he was in koyak’s jock even before koyak came out of his break.

    • ibleedirish - Apr 17, 2014 at 8:37 AM

      Again, for Kendall Moore to be even remotely effective, he needs to lose 20 pounds. Immediately. Stop eating.
      I do like the way he hits though, and ND has a distinct lack of that lately.

  16. simmel65 - Apr 16, 2014 at 3:54 PM

    Here is my take on Navy.
    How about our offense score 50+ points on them and take away their running game?! That is the best defense. We keep grinding out games against them except for the game in Ireland. If they have to pass to catch up, they won’t score enough and we don’t have to worry about cut blocks…

    • nudeman - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:01 PM

      Here’s my take:
      All the Navy comments here are just gags during slow time
      Don’t think anyone is seriously scared by them

      Unless they’re on a ship in the Persian Gulf

      • ndfenian - Apr 16, 2014 at 4:09 PM

        I don’t think they’re merely gags, sadly enough. We almost lost to them last year, lost to them in 2010…

      • nudeman - Apr 16, 2014 at 7:02 PM

        Good point. Let’s load up.
        Beat Navy.

      • jerseyshorendfan1 - Apr 16, 2014 at 8:25 PM

        Somali pirates aren’t this scared of Navy. What’s up fellas?

      • 1historian - Apr 17, 2014 at 11:35 AM

        In which case they’re on OUR side

  17. upthera44 - Apr 16, 2014 at 10:26 PM

    Now that the barren wasteland of offseason has begun, can someone tell us what date fall camp starts up?

  18. irishlee10 - Apr 17, 2014 at 1:47 AM

    can someone post a link of a video of the spring game? that would be greatly appreciated.

  19. ibleedirish - Apr 17, 2014 at 8:32 AM

    I know there were a few people here that couldn’t watch the game (papa?), so I thought I’d mention that you can now watch the whole thing on WatchND. Probably old news, but if you haven’t watched yet, you should. It was Ishaq’s coming out party. He was in “beastmode” all game. The offensive line looked afraid of the fire in his eyes.

    • upthera44 - Apr 17, 2014 at 9:40 AM


      • ibleedirish - Apr 17, 2014 at 10:35 AM


        He’s horrible.

  20. irishlee10 - Apr 17, 2014 at 11:15 AM

    not finding the spring game on watchnd

    • ibleedirish - Apr 17, 2014 at 4:55 PM

      search by sport, isolate football. its like the 2nd or third option

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