The devil is in the details

Notre Dame's last line of defense again possesses safety in numbers. Now it's up to the Irish safeties to improve their play and production after a downturn in 2013.

The 2013 football season proved safeties in numbers to be a less-than-effective model.

Despite seven promising safety candidates last fall, Notre Dame suffered a significant drop-off at the position after the graduation of long-time starter and 2012 standout Zeke Motta.

With six players technically listed at the position and a seventh, current nickel Matthias Farley possessing ample safety experience, secondary coach Kerry Cooks still has plenty of talent from which to choose.

Can they produce?

"They're still interchangeable," said Cooks of his safeties in first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme. "We really want guys to be able to do both jobs. The difference is that our strong safety, you would like ideally, in theory, to be a little bit bigger (than the free safety). A little bit more run stout because he's going to be playing to the tight end side a lot. The free safety is a guy that's going to have some cover ability so he's got to be able to walk down and cover the slot. So that's the main difference between the two.

"They have to be able to play both."

Eilar Hardy earned a start and made an impact vs. Navy last November

Strong safety Austin Collinsworth has distanced himself from competitors this spring (Story here.) And free safety Max Redfield has held the starting spot in each practice open to the media to date.

Both athletically gifted and studious, Redfield nonetheless remains, like many of his defensive mates, stuck in neutral as he learns VanGorder's scheme.

"Safeties and linebackers have the toughest time in the scheme so there's a lot of communication for them and a lot of diversity in what they see…so there's a lot of communication that has to go through them," said VanGorder.

"I really like the physical ability of Max. He's getting better and better. He's going to make mistakes. I've seen it before; I've dealt with it before. You have to have some patience and at the same time, still keep driving the standards and expectations."

Redfield understands the spring session allows for occasional mistakes as the team works through scheme, installation, and skill development. He's also well aware such errors will eventually be dealt with more harshly.

"Obviously everyone is going to struggle with a new system," said Redfield. "There's so many fine details to an NFL-type defensive scheme. The defense is starting to come together with mistakes here and there.

"I think you have to go in with the mindset that you have to attack every day and play your best every day. There's other great safeties, we have a ton of depth and we have to be on our "A Game" every single practice. If you don't have that, you'll probably lose your spot."

Redfield is backed by a tandem at present, including junior (redshirt-sophomore) Nicky Baratti, a player that lost most of the calendar year of 2013 to a pair of shoulder surgeries.

"He missed basically all of training camp and all of the (2013) season," said Cooks of Baratti. "So from a mental standpoint, he's basically back to being a freshman with a new system. 'How do I do this? How do I get from point A to point B?' Then going through that reaction phase. His comfort has to come when he's actually engaged with wide receivers, taking on blocks, making tackles to build confidence that that shoulder is okay."

Listed at 6'1" 206 pounds, Cooks noted Baratti has the body type of a strong safety but can play both (and is currently at free). The same holds true for senior (redshirt-junior) Eilar Hardy, he too a victim of a previous season-ending injury (ACL surgery in August of his freshman season). Hardy and Baratti are neck-and-neck behind Redfield, with Hardy also staking claim to a backup strong safety spot.

"Eilar is our swing guy right now," said Cooks of Hardy who started twice, but was also suspended twice last season.

Shumate earned the nickel role in September 2012

Another former starter, junior Elijah Shumate, remains in competition for the No. 2 role behind Collinsworth. The most imposing member of the group, Shumate is not only battling the mental strain of a new scheme, but a physical issue that's lingered since mid-October 2013.

"I think the thing with him is, he can't miss reps," said Cooks of Shumate. "He has to put himself in position where he can hear it, and see it, and rep it on a day-to-day basis. When he's fighting through a hamstring, which has been his nemesis, it's hard on him. He's a guy that needs a lot of reps. He has all the ability that you want at that position, for him it's making sure he's on the field, every day, to be able to rep it step by step. The more that he can rep it and stay healthy and be on the field, the better he's going to be.

"You see when he's out there consistently, you can see him ascend. When he's not out there, he starts back from square one."

Other than the steady fifth-year sage Collinsworth, inexperience and hesitation still reign for the unit. It's up to each to fight through the mental challenges, because each is blessed with physical gifts.

Redfield is the clear-cut leader in the latter category.

"I understood that details were very important, but I didn't really understand the magnitude of the very intricate details and that mastering those details will make me a better player," said Redfield of his freshman experience last fall.

"You just take it (setbacks) in stride. It's not going to make my day any better or my season any better if I'm mad toward coaches or anyone else. Obviously I felt like I would like more (playing) time, of course. But I feel like everything happens for a reason, it worked out toward the end of the season, I feel like things are starting to pickup and have a snowball effect."

Redfield started the Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers. He's held the job through the first 10 practices of the spring and he knows it's anything but safe. Still, the taste of first-string action in December and since buyuod his spirits.

"You can't imitate the speed of the game until you're in it, so it was cool to get that start," said Redfield. "Obviously Rutgers isn't going to be the same as (Oct. 18 foe and defending national champion) Florida State. And I understand that. I know I need to make tons of improvements from now to next season. But it was great to get that start under my belt, I was really thankful for that and I feel like i've been growing ever since." Top Stories