Sky-rocketing: Elijah Shumate
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, October 30, 2015
It’s not often Irish head coach Brian Kelly uses the word “sky-rocketing” to describe one of his players.
But that’s exactly what Kelly said when asked about the improvement shown this year by senior safety Elijah Shumate.
“Wish I had him for another couple years,” Kelly said. “He’s really coming into his own.”
In seven games this season, Shumate has made 33 tackles, fifth on the team and second in the Notre Dame secondary. His 25 solo tackles are the third most by an Irish defensive player this season. He’s dropped an opponent behind the line of scrimmage four times, the most of any Irish defensive back.
Shumate also effectively sealed the Irish win against Navy with his fourth-quarter interception.
“There’s just an overwhelming confidence in what he’s doing. He’s not second-guessing things,” graduate student safety Matthias Farley said of his teammate. “He’s not looking to see if someone else is going to make a check. He knows what he has to do and what he’s supposed to do and how everyone else is supposed to fit, so that confidence and the understanding of the system has allowed him to play a lot faster for us.
“Each and every Saturday he’s been very, very consistent throughout the season.”
This hasn’t always been the case since Shumate arrived on campus, however. The four-star prospect signed with the Irish as the eighth-best safety in the class of 2012, according to Rivals.com, and Shumate admits the pressure of being such a highly-rated recruit added extra pressure to perform on the field.
“[I was] just not being myself. Just thinking about a lot of things and not just getting back to playing football, playing football like I’ve been doing since I was young,” Shumate said. “I was always just wanting to do this and do that. With the high expectations coming into college, it made everything a lot harder.”
The East Orange, New Jersey, native appeared in all 13 games during Notre Dame’s 2012 run to the BCS National Championship game. Shumate saw the field mainly on special teams, but he also appeared as the nickel back, making nine tackles and breaking up three passes for the Irish. During his sophomore campaign in 2013, Shumate started four games and played in nine over the course of a season where he missed time with an injury, although he still managed to tally 23 tackles.
So when Austin Collinsworth went down with a shoulder injury last season, Shumate already had a fair amount of experience when he became the de facto starter 48 hours before the season-opening kickoff against Rice.
Although Shumate finished with 66 tackles while playing in all 13 games, he was inconsistent at times, Kelly said.
“He was working so hard at his craft,” Kelly said. “And he was struggling, and it was wearing on him.”
Kelly said this season he has seen the breakthrough he was always expecting.
“Some guys, it just takes longer to get to that point,” Kelly said. “He’s still cooking — he just wasn’t done yet. He’s just one of those guys that is ascending for us. It’s really nice to see. He’s such a great kid, cares so much.
“To see him start to break through, it’s one of the gratifying things as a coach: That you get to see a player break through that wall. He’s just been banging at that wall, and you can see that it’s coming down for him.”
Farley said it was never a matter of motivation for Shumate.
“He was hungry,” Farley said. “He wanted to learn, he wanted to play. He played nickel his freshman year and against Michigan State he made a couple really, really nice plays.”
It wasn’t a matter of athletic ability, either.
“He’s been a freak athlete since birth, I would assume,” Farley said with a laugh.
Where Shumate said he has seen himself grow is going the extra mile to fine tune his athletic ability and compliment it with an increased understanding of the system the Irish want to run under first-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght.
“I guess my focus towards the game and my understanding [have really developed],” Shumate said. “Just basically me trying to better myself every day in whatever I could do, whether it’s watching extra film and going out to practice and working on something like ball drills, jugs, footwork. Things like that. Just bettering myself every day.”
Shumate said Lyght’s approach to the game has also been a large part of finding himself on the gridiron.
“Coach Lyght has helped me tremendously,” Shumate said. “He’s been a big help, a big mentor towards the game to me because he just allows us to go out there and have fun. You know when you’ve got Coach Lyght here, you know when you get to the sideline he might chew you out, but you know you can go out there and if you’re going hard, aggressive, that Coach Lyght is OK with that. He understands that players are going to make mistakes, and you’ve just got to learn from them.
“I think he’s a player’s coach, and he can really relate to us in a lot of different ways.”
Lyght has also helped Shumate regain a sense of fun playing football he lost somewhere over the last three years, Shumate said.
“Now that we have Coach Lyght and [defensive graduate assistant Maurice Crum, Jr.], they make the game a lot more fun,” Shumate said. “[I’m] not saying that the [previous] coaches didn’t make it fun, but I always felt like I had a burden on my back.
“Now I feel like I can just play. I can just have fun, just go out there and just work hard and have fun and make plays. … I get excited about it because I feel like this is a year where we just have fun and play the game that we love. When you’re having fun out there and you’re doing well and making plays, it makes it a lot more fun. So I like to keep everybody laughing and joking throughout the practices.”
Farley said he has seen this transition first-hand this season.
“He’s been up and done, as we know a lot of us have, but in this new system he’s really found a home and really understands it,” Farley said. “And he’s enjoying it and not thinking so much because of that understanding.”
This understanding has also manifested itself outside of Shumate’s individual play, Farley said.
“He just comes to work every day. He leads by example, I think, in a lot of ways, but he also will see things that other guys are doing or correct something that someone else does mid-play or make something right that somebody else messed up, so I think guys see that and they’re like, ‘Alright, Elijah’s on his stuff,’” Farley said. “And so people will go to him and ask questions. In the past, he would ask someone else the question, now he’s being that guy that people look to and go to to ask questions.”
Shumate said he doesn’t see himself as a vocal leader.
“I just try to be myself. I’m an aggressive guy,” Shumate said. “I like to come up and I like to make noise. I like to hit. So I just try to use that to my advantage.
“I’ve never been a guy to just be vocal and get in people’s faces and stuff like that. I use a different [approach] in trying to become a leader on the defense and just try to lead by example with my play. Just trying to go out there every day, work hard, and everyone sees me work hard so everybody’s just like, ‘Alright, well now I just want to work hard.’”
Shumate said he didn’t have to look far for inspiration for hard work — both now and back when he first arrived on campus.
As a freshman, Shumate said he gravitated to then-graduate student safety Jamoris Slaughter.
“He was a leader, and I always wanted to just be that figure where once I step on the field, everybody was just looking up like, ‘That was that guy,’” Shumate said. “But Jamoris just had that presence. … that when he was on the field that it was the Jamoris Show, and Jamoris had the secondary and it was just going to be lights out. Jamoris was going to make plays and be physical, and he was going to play hard.”
For the last couple years, he said he’s been able to watch how hard junior linebacker Jaylon Smith works in all aspects of the game.
“I feel like he works really hard so everybody leaves and sees him working hard,” Shumate said. “And he’s out there making plays every week, so they think, ‘Maybe if we worked as hard as him, we’re going to be making plays like him.’”
Shumate also said he has an end goal for all that hard work.
“My goal is just to keep enhancing everything. Just keep enhancing everything as a football player,” Shumate said. “Just becoming — taking to that role of being a leader. No questions, no ‘if’ factors, no inconsistency. Just being consistent every week, every day at practice just giving his all; every game give his all and just be that guy that everyone can look to. If Jaylon turns around, he’s like ‘I know Shumate got me.’ [If senior defensive back] KeiVarae [Russell] turns around, he’s like ‘He’s got me.’”