Irish secondary works through growing pains
Greg Hadley | Friday, October 16, 2015
If last season was the only guide, USC graduate student quarterback Cody Kessler would be glad to see the Notre Dame secondary when he takes his first snap Saturday night.
In the Trojans’ 49-14 victory in 2014, Kessler torched the Irish defensive backs for six touchdowns, 372 yards and an 80 percent completion percentage.
But things have changed since then, and the Notre Dame secondary that will take the field this weekend will look far different from the one that was dominated a year ago.
Just ask KeiVarae Russell.
“They’re going to be going against a lot of different guys,” the senior cornerback said. “It’s a totally different team.”
Russell missed last year’s game while he was suspended, and junior safety Max Redfield left in the second quarter due to injury. Meanwhile, junior cornerback Devin Butler had to step up in just the second start of his career, and junior Cole Luke was expected to lead the cornerbacks in his first season as a starter.
“Obviously going into last year’s game against SC we were real banged up, a lot of guys were out,” graduate student safety Matthias Farley said. “We had a lot of true freshmen playing that had never played in that environment, never played in that game before.”
This season, the Irish secondary is much more settled. Russell is back on the field and third on the team in tackles, and Luke has two interceptions to lead the team and a whole year of experience under his belt. Redfield and Farley have split time at safety, and senior safety Elijah Shumate has three tackles for loss, one interception and 31 tackles.
And perhaps most importantly, the unit has gone from a relative dearth of leaders to a surplus of them. Farley is a captain, Russell is considered a future NFL draft pick, and Shumate has grown to become more vocal and assertive as a leader.
“[It’s] skyrocketed,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Shumate’s leadership. “I wish I had another couple of years with him. He’s really come into his own. Some guys, it just takes a little longer to get to that point. He’s just one of those guys who’s really ascending for us.”
Last season, Shumate had a career-high 13 tackles against USC. It was, however, part of an up-and-down season in which he was benched twice and struggled to earn the approval of Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
But a second year in VanGorder’s system has paid dividends for Shumate and the secondary.
“I think he understands the game a lot more and his defense really, really well, so I think it obviously helps to speak up when you know you’re 100 percent right, you’re not second-guessing yourself,” Farley said of Shumate. “I think also he’s just been playing really well, so that gives him more confidence.”
So far this season, Notre Dame ranks 12th in the nation in passing yards allowed — though two of its six games have come against triple-option offenses that rarely pass the ball — but have allowed seven touchdowns through the air, 43rd in the NCAA.
And Kelly is far from satisfied with the unit.
“I think where we’d like to see continued growth is probably just being a little more aggressive,” he said. “Most astute football coaches would say that it starts on the back end, right?”
It’s an assessment Farley agrees with, but he sees this weekend’s matchup with Kessler and USC as a chance to showcase the aggressiveness and consistency Kelly is looking for.
“I think that each week is an opportunity to play more consistently as a secondary, and what better way to do it than go against some incredible competition in USC or whoever it may be?” Farley said. “But it really is just becoming more consistent week in and week out no matter who we’re playing and trusting each other that you’re going to do your job because everything does fit when everyone is doing the right thing in the secondary.”