A Necessary 180

Senior safety Elijah Shumate has played a major role in Notre Dame's defenses since September of his freshman year. His final go-round next fall is expected to bare little resemblance to season's past.

There was a moment last season when it appeared to click for junior safety Elijah Shumate.

At the apex of his team's dismantling of the Michigan Wolverines was Shumate -- a 215-pound sprinting exclamation point -- whose game-ending interception culminated in a delirious team-wide end zone celebration.

The touchdown was called back due to penalty, Shumate's interception stood, and so did he -- 10-feet taller than seven days prior when it was clear to all, coaches and casual fans alike, that he had endured a rough opening day at the hands of Rice and the Owls' otherwise impotent offense.

That sprint down the Irish sidelines served as the high point for Shumate in what became an up-and-down season that included a mid-November benching before ultimately, a return to relative grace.

Now as the Irish near the midpoint of spring practice 2015 this weekend, Shumate's status with the program has never been stronger.

"His last couple of games really started to build that confidence level," said head coach Brian Kelly. "I think it started with the way he played when he got back in the lineup (USC), he started to gain that confidence back. And the last game (LSU), him and Max (Redfield), in particular.

"For both there's a lot of confidence right now. They feel really confident in the system and the work that they're doing."

Similar sentiments were not expressed last season when concerns over the duo's ability to communicate with teammates and quarterback defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's complex schemes proved accurate. And debilitating.

"So much different than where we were at this time last year or any time during the season," said Kelly. "We don't see the missed assignments. We see two guys that have clearly have grasped what we're doing out there. We've kind of settled into two really solid football players back there for us.

"The bowl preparation was absolutely crucial to both of those guys to really see where they needed to grow," Kelly continued. "Now they get into this year and they know it's time to really deliver. I think they look back on the year and see clearly some tough times, but they're going to be better because of it."

VanGorder allowed a smile earlier this week when asked about the tandem -- not a facial feature that accompanied the utterances of their names last fall.

"They've been real solid, both of them," he said. "Way more comfortable, way more knowledgeable. Not getting a lot of panic snaps from them. They're playing much more confident."

For a player with a penchant for barking at foes after a play's completion, Shumate was curiously quiet when his fellow defenders needed to hear his voice most. Pre-snap.

"I think Austin (Collinsworth) had been obviously a great communicator back there and then with Elijah and Max back there, we needed somebody to pick it up and neither one of those guys picked up the slack," said Kelly of early-season communication issues along the back line. "It needs to be better."

First-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght wasn't surprised the pair had issues running the comprehensive show as rookies in a new system.

"You have to be very vocal at safety, you're pretty much the quarterbacks of the defense," Lyght said. "So you have to do a good job of commanding the defense, anticipating change, shifting, motions, and anticipating the adjustments that need to be made.

"With the new defense last year, they were hindered by that and it slowed up their thinking process. Now they have a great understanding of the defense so I think they'll be much faster with the decision-making and processing information, which will allow them to get guys lined up faster and result in us being able to make more plays and ultimately be more successful.

"They're really talented young players. Anytime when a safety has to learn a new brand of defense it's very difficult and I think that was part of their issue last year. They faced a lot of adversity and were able to bounce back. They did a good job of handling it; went about it the right way. They're being more assertive at the position."
Lyght noted that while he hopes the safety positions can be interchangeable, it's true the Shumate's physical presence makes him a better fit as a "second-level defender" while Redfield is able to roam as a post-safety.
"Coming from the Philadelphia Eagles, we were left and right -- we made safeties do both," said Lyght. "We can do that here but the way the defense is set up I think Shumate is more of a second-level defender."

A second-level safety with a final opportunity to take his game to a higher level in the fall.

Kelly noted of Shumate that his return to the starting lineup at season's end was the first sign of improvement after a mid-November benching. A film review of the catastrophe that was the USC contest reflects Kelly's assertion.

The contest marked the first Notre Dame game since its loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game that we did not identify 10 players for post-game film awards. But Shumate's effort surfaced as a bright spot: 13 tackles including -- and perhaps most importantly -- three on USC's final drive when a disengaged athlete would have otherwise shut it down.

His best of 2014 is as follows:

-- Top 10 Outings: Michigan, USC (effort)
-- Honorable Mentions: Syracuse, Stanford, LSU
-- Made Crucial Plays: UNC
-- TFL (2) + Stuffs (10.5): Shumate's 12.5 stuffs ranked 10th on the squad and second among defensive backs behind Matthias Farley's 15.5. His 66 total tackles placed him third behind linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt.
-- INT + PD (6): Recorded just one interception (Michigan) but ranked tied for second on the squad in passes defended with five (Farley, Devin Butler).

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