On paper, Notre Dame’s secondary appeared to be one of the strengths of the team. Veterans at every position. Senior KeiVarae Russell returning to the field. Yet the collection of talent has struggled to play to its potential.
That’s been evident in the up and down play of Max Redfield and the rust on Russell. While Brian Kelly praised the play of senior Elijah Shumate last week, junior Cole Luke has had some uneven moments and injuries have forced Matthias Farley back into the safety rotation, away from the slot cornerback spot he had so much success in last year.
While there have been mistakes that have showed up immediately on the score board or in the stat sheet, the secondary’s performance against USC was a great step forward, and hopefully an indication that a strong home stretch is on the horizon. As Todd Lyght’s defensive backs hope to make November their best month, let’s finish up our bye week snapshots.
MVPs (So Far): KeiVarae Russell & Elijah Shumate.
While most people have spent plenty of time talking about the things that KeiVarae Russell hasn’t managed to do this season, it’s worth pointing out that Notre Dame’s senior cornerback has as many solo tackles as All-Universe linebacker Jaylon Smith. So while Russell’s had some struggles in coverage an waited until USC to make his biggest, most impactful plays of the season, he’s been solid in other facets of the game.
For Shumate, Notre Dame’s strong safety is a key component to stopping the run. Whether it’s crashing down into the box or being a key piece of the plan to stop Georgia Tech and Navy, Shumate’s play has earned him admiration and praise from his head coach, who at times in the past likely wondered if he’d ever see the mental and the physical match up with the New Jersey native.
Best Still to Come? Max Redfield & Cole Luke.
Notre Dame’s two junior starters have the chance to turn the 2015 season into a good one if they finish the year strong. For Redfield, an early-season thumb injury against Texas likely derailed his offseason momentum. (So did trying to tackle the quarterback against the option.) But inserted back into the lineup against USC, Redfield played better than Farley, and gave Notre Dame the athleticism on the back end that they needed against a team of playmaking receivers.
Luke has had some mental lapses in coverage this season—and we saw one of those mistakes cost the Irish defense seven points when he fell for another trick play against USC. But the junior’s game will build with confidence, and given the opportunity to match up and cover on the outside, he’s going to win more battles than he loses.
Both Redfield and Luke can get better, especially if they use the adversity to grow. Luke thrived in coverage last season against a slate of tremendous receivers and he’s capable of making plays that impact football games. The same goes for Redfield, who has been better in coverage than he gets credit for and if he’s on his game he’s capable of impacting the game against both the run and pass.
Wait Until Next Year: Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Drue Tranquill
We didn’t get a chance to see what Crawford could do, as the nickel back tore his ACL in preseason camp. But the Irish coaching staff all but scrapped their nickel package once Crawford went down, an alignment that likely would’ve been a base alignment against passing opponents and on third down. That tells you quite a bit about what the staff thinks it has in the diminutive cover man, who’ll be ready to make up for lost time come spring.
Coleman has played most of his football on special teams, though is getting an occasional look in coverage. Another freshman, the converted high school running back has been a nice surprise, fighting his way into the mix even with established defenders like Devin Butler and Nick Watkins ahead of him. Don’t be surprised to see more of Coleman after the off week, especially if the Irish put more defensive backs on the field.
Tranquill’s freak injury came half-way into a breakthrough performance against the option. The sledge-hammer safety was a perfect linebacker in the dime package or a specialist against the triple option. We saw the Indiana native make an immediate impact against Georgia Tech before going down before halftime.
With Shumate gone after this season and Russell likely heading to the NFL after earning his degree, these three defensive backs will play a huge part of next year’s secondary. So while they each got something completely different out of this season, the pieces are in place for each to make a move in 2016.