1.) Glass Half-Full: Seven competitors (sans their injured eighth, Nicky Baratti) combine to boast 21 recruiting stars, one Special Teams Player of the Year award, and a BCS Championship game starting appearance. Or…
2.) Glass Half-Empty: Seven competitors (sans their injured eighth Baratti) have among them:
- One player who's started a college football game
- One (the same) who's played in a college game at safety since the calendar turned 2012
- Five players that didn't play college football at all last fall
- Four that haven't played in a college game, period, despite enrolling at the school in 2010, 2011, 2012, and this summer, respectively, and...
- One that missed nearly a calendar year of field time with two injuries of season-ending severity.
Predictably, head coach Brian Kelly's views on the Irish safeties leans toward the half-full variety.
"It's really too early to start slotting (safeties). Elijah (Shumate) was running with the first group but there was really some flexibility there. (Austin) Collinsworth and Nicky were getting some first team reps," said Kelly in the wake of Baratti's dislocated shoulder injury, one that will shelve him for the season. "We have three other guys that have done a very good job and I'll highlight them for you.
"We've already talked about (freshman) Max Redfield and we know about his ability. There's going to be a mental end of it that he's going to have to progress there. But we feel like physically he's got the ability. And he'll continue to grow.
"John Turner has had a very good week for us and Eilar Hardy. Both of those guys have, the old coaching cliche (applies): 'It's not our job to notice you, it's your job to make us notice you.' We have now noticed Hardy and John Turner. They have now put themselves in a position along with Collinsworth, Shumate, (Matthias) Farley, where we have pretty good depth there and we feel very confident in the position."
Hardy sat out 2011 after tearing his ACL as a true freshman in August camp. He was unable to join the varsity last season, toiling on the scout team and falling further behind his teammates. That is, until the spring, his first sign of breakthrough since injury.
"You're talking about a player whose (previous) evaluation was very, very low," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in April. "That's just a fact of the matter. And now his evaluation is higher than that. To what extent in terms of production for fall 2013, who knows? But he's really focused his energy and life and intensity and effort and he really wants to be a good player, you can see it. He worked at that this winter, and he worked at that this spring. And I'm really pleased with Eilar Hardy."
Turner likewise missed 2012 as a freshman redshirt, withheld to gain seasoning, a development not uncommon for future successes at the position. (Tom Zbikowski and Kyle McCarthy the most notable recent redshirt safeties to later start and star under the Dome.)
Shumate spent his true freshman season of 2012 as a nickel defender, one working with the cornerbacks in practice. He's since been running as a first unit safety since the start of spring ball.
"I played safety a few times in situations in high school, but like you said I played a hybrid linebacker so I'm kind of raw," said Shumate at spring's conclusion. "There's a lot more space to cover. I got some game time experience last year. I got a chance to play nickel, so playing corner then moving to safety is a big transition in terms of making a lot of calls, but the coaches and veteran safeties have helped me through it."
The unit's seventh healthy member, 2010 early enrollee Chris Badger, exited spring ball behind his cohorts after two years away from football (2010-11) for a religious mission to Ecuador. Badger enters 2013 as a sophomore in terms of collegiate eligibility. He did not play as a "freshman" last fall.
Mind over Matter?"The intangible traits are just as important for our safeties. So football intelligence and the ability to communicate clearly and articulate and think quickly are critical components to success at safety." -- Diaco, April 2013.
It's thus pertinent to point out that nearly every Shumate-related conversation, be it with Diaco, Kelly, or position coach Bob Elliott, includes a praise-quashing, "but."
In other words, "he has all the tools, but…"
"He's still learning. He's still learning. He's getting better every day, but there's still competition back there," said Kelly. "What we have to do is we have to put the best players on the field. We're still working as coaches to put the best players on the field based upon … We've got to make sure that we're gonna put the best 22 on the field and get the schemes to fit them. Well, I'm not gonna change the schemes until I know who the best 22 are. We're still in that process. That's what this is all about.
"(Shumate's) certainly very solid tackler. He's picking up the scope of the defense. He has some parts of the defense down very good. He has more that he has to learn. We do some things defensively that require him to communicate very well and those are things that he has to grow into. "
Presumed to have a slight lead on Baratti pre-injury, Shumate now seems poised to win the field safety starting job. His running mate will be the unit's only given, boundary safety Matthias Farley. But its the eldest member of the group -- one whose last brush with an opponent was the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, might be the key to the unit's early-season efforts.
"Collinsworth, he's healthy now, physically able to do the jobs he wasn't able to in the spring because he was coming back from two surgeries, the back and the shoulder," said Kelly. "What he does for us is give us great versatility. He can play both safety positions. Great to have that experience and versatility."
The team's 2011 Special Teams Player of the year, Collinsworth noted the time away from the field allowed for stricter adherence to the position's mental aspects.
"Mentally, the game is almost in slow motion compared to how it was last year," he said. "I've been watching a lot of film -- I had a lot of time to myself last year -- so mentally I'm a lot better."
That's the challenge for Shumate, and likely the junior Hardy, the sophomore Turner, and the freshman Redfield, none of whom have played in a college football game.
"The difference," began Kelly in comparison of Redfield and last year's true freshman contributor Baratti, "is there was a lot more opportunity for Nick last year. There's more safeties with more experience so he's going to have to overcome -- he can't just win it on being a great athlete.
"Nicky did a lot of that on athleticism last year and we didn't have a lot of safeties. Now we have much greater depth. It allows us to be more patient with Max. If we had Max in last year's situation, I'd say its very similar to where Nicky (played early)."
Greater depth, but unproven. A wealth of talent, but a dearth of game-tested minds and bodies.
And of course, a certain leader for the pack.
"When you can not think and just play and react; when you take all the 'what-if's?' out and the 'maybes', and you just know what you need to do, it makes all the difference in the world," said Farley of his full-season immersion last year and growth from it."
Chances are Irish fans, players and coaches will experience more such growth when the bullets go live this fall.