Core of Irish defense beginning to emerge

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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.