Secondary all but solidified after spring
Greg Hadley | Friday, April 17, 2015
It was the big question mark in the back. The one area where Notre Dame’s defense was constantly lacking, injured or both. The place where the Irish were exposed again and again last season. The secondary.
A year after being shredded for 22 passing touchdowns and 2,878 yards through the air, though, the Irish end spring practice with clear favorites to start at the cornerback and safety positions.
Junior Max Redfield and senior Elijah Shumate both started at least 10 games at safety last year, but both also saw the bench in some of the final games of the year as they struggled to adjust to defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s complex defense.
“The scheme that he wanted to run was more than we had ever seen,” Redfield said. “And then the amount of time we had to learn it and install it was obviously shorter than what was comfortable for us. Obviously, it’s a process learning anything new.”
However, the time on the field and the lessons learned on the bench left their mark. This spring, Redfield and Shumate have played like veterans and earned the lion’s share of the first-team reps.
“They’ve been real solid so far, both of them; real solid, way more comfortable, way more knowledgeable,” VanGorder said. “Not getting a lot of panicked snaps from them. They’re playing much more confident.”
Head coach Brian Kelly also said he was pleased with the safeties’ play throughout the spring but highlighted an area they still had room to improve upon.
“Defensively, I think we’re seeing both of safeties — I would like them to communicate a little bit more demonstratively, more vocally louder — but it’s night and day compared to their recognition of what’s happen out there and how they’re seeing things,” Kelly said.
For VanGorder, the importance of being vocal on the field is especially important for safeties, whom he said he considers “the quarterbacks of the defense.” Redfield said he has worked on developing that aspect of his game this spring.
On the right side of the field, junior Cole Luke virtually has one cornerback spot locked down after starting all 13 games last season. While he deferred to the now-graduated Cody Riggs in 2014, Luke has stepped up to lead the cornerback corps.
“Cole’s tremendous,” new Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said. “Right now, he’s our No. 1 corner, doing a great job of showing the other younger players what it takes to be successful. … The way he goes about everything in his approach — I mean, he’s very attentive in meetings; he’s a leader in our group during individual periods. … I really like the way that he’s stepping up in a leadership role.”
But while Lyght and VanGorder expect players like Redfield to be vocal presences in the center of the field, they said Luke’s leadership style is based more on example.
“I think his leadership comes in the way [younger players] know he knows what he’s doing,” VanGorder said. “He’s a quiet communicator, but they trust that he knows the defense well. A very bright player, so he’s a different kind of leader for us.”
The only uncertainty remaining is the second cornerback spot. KeiVarae Russell, who missed all of last season due to the investigation into academic dishonesty, is expected to return to the Irish in the fall, contingent on his academic work.
But until he does, the Irish have played junior Devin Butler and sophomore Nick Watkins. While Lyght and VanGorder both said they liked the physical skillsets of each player, they still want to see continual development.
“When I watch Devin and I watch Nick, these are guys with tremendous talent, tremendous playmaking ability, and you see them flash,” Lyght said. “But consistently, they don’t do it at a high level enough consistently that we could be really, really successful.”
The most senior member of the secondary, graduate student Matthias Farley, will fill in wherever needed this season, VanGorder said. Trained at both safety and cornerback, Farley is most likely to see time in the nickel package, a valuable position only a veteran could take on, Lyght said.
“He does a great job of understanding the 2-3 exchanges, which is very difficult for young players, where offenses like to move guys around, and you lose leverage off the 2-3 exchange,” Lyght said. “I think he does a good job communicating with the inside linebackers of how they’re going to play those 2-3 exchanges, and so I think that he’s going to be a really big part of what we’re going to do this year.”
Despite the trials of last season, Redfield said the secondary has come together as a unit and bought in to the defensive system.
“We’re all in it together,” Redfield said of his message to younger players. “Everyone has a role that is going to contribute to the team, and if we’re not all on the same page, then it’s not going to work.”