No contingency plans at safety

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In Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, the Irish have their starting safeties. The success of Notre Dame’s defense will depend on if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

On paper, the duo of Redfield and Shumate match any other back line in recent memory. Redfield’s 5-star pedigree has been well discussed. Shumate’s blue-chip status was well-established as well, an Army All-American and Don Bosco Prep star who chose the Irish over a slew of elite offers.

But the duo has yet to play to expectations. Never was that more apparent than in 2014, when both were given every opportunity to win—and hold onto—starting jobs, but struggled with the transition to Brian VanGorder’s defense.

That struggle sounds like it’s coming to an end. And after both spending considerable time in Brian Kelly’s doghouse last season, the Irish head coach had words of praise for both safeties last week as he gave a status report.

“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” Kelly said. “We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grabbed a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”

Taking Kelly at his word, the development of Redfield and Shumate couldn’t have come at a better time. Because behind them, the depth chart is scary.

Gone is former captain Austin Collinsworth, whose final season was marred by multiple injuries. Moving on is Eilar Hardy, who will graduate and play out his eligibility at Bowling Green, his 2014 season all but ruined by the Frozen Five academic scandal.

Rising sophomore Drue Tranquill is ahead of schedule as he returns from a late-season ACL tear, but taking spring relatively easy. Nicky Baratti is doing his best to play through another serious shoulder injury while both John Turner and Matthias Farley are providing depth at a position that looks like a good fit for neither player.

Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta hit campus this June. But it’s clear the Irish are going to have to lean heavily on the veteran duo, something that Redfield knows, especially looking back on his benching during the Irish’s November swoon.

“Nobody likes to get benched, but at that time, you have to reflect. ‘I’m getting benched for a reason. The coaches have to have some kind of motive behind this,’” Redfield acknowledged when talking with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “So it kind of game me some time to reflect upon it and understand. ‘I’m not entitled to this spot, and I have to earn it every day.’”

That applies to Shumate as well, who made some mental errors that would’ve taken him off the field had the Irish had the luxury of doing so. For Shumate, this is his final season in South Bend, and the last opportunity to put together a season that exceeds expectations, something he managed to do as a scrappy slot defender as a freshman.

A late lightbulb isn’t necessarily rare at safety. Especially in Notre Dame’s secondary. We saw that happen with Harrison Smith after a redshirt and two up and down seasons relegated him to the doghouse. Former Irish GA Kyle McCarthy was just a special teams contributor before turning into a tackling machine in his senior and fifth years.

Zeke Motta struggled before the light went on. As did Jamoris Slaughter. That Shumate stepped into a talented but thin 2012 defense robbed him of the opportunity to learn before doing. Last season was a bit more of the same thing, only his mistakes were magnified by the importance of safeties in VanGorder’s system.

New secondary coach Todd Lyght is two-thirds of the way through spring working with his presumptive starters. VanGorder is spending plenty of time on the back end as well.

In a depth chart filled mostly with question marks, Redfield and Shumate stand alone. Not because they’re proven commodities, but because they’ve already played their way through the fire and come out on the other side.

“I think they really look back on the year and see there were really some tough times for them, but they’re going to be better because of it,” Kelly said.

If the Irish defense is going to be up to the task, Kelly better be right.