Spring Wrap: Irish safeties

Who took a step forward? Who might have fallen back? Irish Eyes discusses what we know now, what we think we know, and what questions remain.

What We Know...

After 15 spring practices, it's clear that 5th-year senior Austin Collinsworth and true sophomore Max Redfield cemented starting positions. Collinsworth, along with cornerback KeiVarae Russell, was lauded by Irish secondary coach Kerry Cooks as two players that were on "a different level" than their competitors.

Redfield apparently improved greatly from the midway point of spring ball to its conclusion.

"Max Redfield has had a really good back end of the spring," said head coach Brian Kelly. "And I say the back end; probably the last seven practices, has really stepped his game up and his knowledge of what we're doing has been really good."

-- We know junior Elijah Shumate brings a physical presence, but did not end the spring session ready for a lead role…

-- We know Eilar Hardy continues to show flashes, but remains inconsistent…

-- We know former safety and current nickel Matthias Farley could step back into a safety role if injuries ravage the position, but he's otherwise set at nickel exiting spring…

-- We know Nicky Baratti's Blue Gold game shoulder injury appeared serious (no official update has been given), as more than two handfuls of teammates came up to speak to the junior as he stood on the sidelines with ice pressed to his right shoulder…

-- We know sophomore James Onwualu is more of a sub-package linebacker than true safety, at least at this point in his development. Onwualu was moved from wide receiver in the off-season after playing in all 13 games last fall as a true freshman.

-- No longer a high-volume position as it was in spring 2013, Notre Dame is nonetheless set for 2014 with Collinsworth, Redfield, Shumate, Hardy, and Baratti if healthy, with Farley and Onwualu available in a pinch. Only Collinsworth exhausts eligibility this fall.

Shumate possesses a penchant for the physical

What we think we know...

That Shumate can meet the staff's expectations and become the first safety off the bench, likely spelling Collinsworth at the strong safety spot.

Shumate's athleticism and tackling skills would prove invaluable vs. spread offenses, but he's not yet been able to bring the playbook and film room to the field. A nagging hamstring injury first suffered in preparation for USC last October hasn't helped, nor has the realization that safety is a difficult position to learn in Brian VanGorder's scheme. (As it was in Bob Diaco's, previously.)

-- We think Hardy can contribute after showing flashes last November. The senior threw away a golden opportunity: a starting job vs. Stanford with what became his second suspension of the 2013 season. (He was also suspended in September for a contest at Purdue for undisclosed reasons.)

VanGorder labeled Hardy inconsistent in the spring.

Hardy helped hold Navy short of a potential game-winning score

Lingering questions...

When will Shumate -- now in his third season with the program -- progress to the point where his understanding of the defense and his position (in reality, his third position in three seasons) match his athletic gifts? Shumate was the team's nickel in 2012 and a safety in a wholly different scheme last fall -- the changes allowing no chance for the gifted junior to settle in.

-- How did this unit, blessed with two top tier position coaches, talent throughout its ranks, and blessed with athleticism, fare so poorly last season?

-- Will the Irish go a legitimate two deep at both strong and free safety in each contest next fall?

-- Can Collinsworth play up to the status bestowed upon him by the defensive coaching staff?

-- Will Redfield evolve from technical starting safety to playmaker in time for the meat of the Irish schedule?

-- Can Baratti fight through a third shoulder injury and contribute next season?

Spring Standout -- Redfield

Max Redfield has grabbed the reigns as the starting free safety -- is he ready for prime time? The sophomore possesses off-the-charts athleticism and is one of the most engaging interviewees on the squad. Film room to practice field; being fast vs. playing fast; knowing your role vs. understanding it -- can it all coalesce in September?

Said VanGorder of Redfield at the spring's conclusion:

"He's really improved tremendously through spring ball. He's got a lot of work ahead of him when you're playing safety in our system. So he's getting a comfort where he can learn to communicate because as a safety, you've got to be able to communicate a lot of defense. Our backers and safeties are guys that can talk and make sure everybody's on the same page."

Step Back -- Nicky Baratti

Baratti's third shoulder injury over an 18-month span knocked him from last week's Blue Gold game. Head coach Brian Kelly offered post game that Baratti's latest setback did not impact the same shoulder that required surgery in both January 2013 and August 2013.

Coincidentally, Baratti spoke of the nature of injuries (fellow safety Austin Collinsworth suffered a torn labrum during the 2012 Blue Gold Game) one day prior to the Blue Gold game: "Anybody can go down at any point, God forbid. Sometimes you have to expect the worst because things happen.

"Coaches tell me every day, 'I can see you're starting to shake the rust off a bit.'

"Of course I'm going to be rusty after not playing, but I'm focusing on getting the little things down."

He added the new defensive scheme allowed for more playmaking opportunities for the safeties.

Notre Dame's final line of defense would benefit greatly from the junior's talents and toughness should he return to form at some point next fall.

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