Maybe it’s not quite the kind of “communication” that Brian Kelly refers to when Max Redfield, following a series of plays in which the defense dominated the offense Saturday, emphatically taunted: “You’re looking kind of rattled, offense! You’re looking kind of rattled!”
And yet any form of verbal expression is welcome. Compared to last year, anything above a whisper is the equivalent of a loudspeaker reverberating through the LaBar Practice Complex.
Redfield and his running mate, senior Elijah Shumate, have shed the chains of tentativeness, broken the bonds of indecision and have begun to rise to a level of play that is essential – along with a more stout rush defense and a more ferocious pass rush – for the Irish to revert back to the unit that allowed 12 points per game through the first five as opposed to the defense that allowed 39 points per game over the final eight.
“The first thing you notice is they’re much more vocal,” said Kelly following Saturday’s practice, the 12th of the spring and the final significant contact before the April 18 Blue-Gold Game.
“You can hear them back there. Last year, you couldn’t even hear them. They were having a hard time communicating.”
It’s difficult to communicate when you don’t know what is the appropriate information to share. In a perfect world – which football rarely is – fifth-year senior/captain Austin Collinsworth would have been directing traffic from start to finish in 2014.
But a freakish knee injury suffered on the Thursday before the opener against Rice set Collinsworth back in September. Then when Collinsworth returned to the starting lineup in Game Six vs. North Carolina, he immediately suffered a shoulder injury that would haunt him for the balance of the season.
That meant that Shumate and Redfield, who popped in and out of the starting lineup throughout the second half of the season, were on an island without a paddle, let alone a lifeboat.
Freshman Drue Tranquill popped back to the safety position to lend a hand, and Eilar Hardy eventually returned from academic suspension. Matthias Farley, who started 11 games at safety in 2012, was deemed too valuable in the nickel back role and never reverted to the last line of defense. Nicky Baratti was out for the season after the third game with another shoulder setback.
A defense doesn’t arrive at definitive answers in the spring. You have to face live bullets to reach that destination. But if Saturday’s scrimmage work was an indication, the gap is narrowing rapidly.
Redfield and Farley picked off two of the three interceptions Saturday with Farley working with the No. 2 unit at safety while maintaining his nickel duties. Redfield and Shumate are in marvelous physical condition. There’s a bounce in their steps, partly because of their physical prowess, but also because there is clarity developing after the haze of 2014.
“They have a better grasp of the defense, there’s no question about that, and I think it’s all coming together for them,” said Kelly of Shumate and Redfield.
In fact, it’s coming together so well that when first asked about the safeties a couple of days earlier, Kelly couldn’t help but bemoan the fact that the Shumate-Redfield pairing was coming to a close too soon.
“The only drawback is that this is their last year (together),” Kelly said. “Max has one more year after this, but it seems like it went too quickly for both of those guys. You wish you had (them) one more year (together).”
Shumate emerged as Notre Dame’s nickel back in 2012 as a true freshman. He played in all 13 games and did a more than competent job of shadowing underneath receivers. But his inability to progress and grasp the system under Bob Diaco led to diminished playing time in 2013, as did an early-season injury.
Redfield, who arrived a year after Shumate, was a five-star prospect champing at the bit to get on the field as a true freshman in 2013. Yet the only niche he could forge was on special teams. It wasn’t until Diaco took the head-coaching job at Connecticut – prior to the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers – that Redfield emerged. But he had difficulty carrying that momentum into 2014.
The growing pains were excruciating. After starting the first five games of ’14 together, they paired up in the starting lineup just three times in the last eight games.
But now Collinsworth is gone, Tranquill is recovering from an ACL injury, John Turner has returned to safety from outside linebacker, Baratti’s durability remains a question mark, and Farley has other roles to maintain. Fifth-year senior transfer Avery Sebastian won’t arrive until this summer, along with freshmen Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta.
It’s now or never for the Shumate-Redfield tandem. So far this spring, it’s been much more now and little indication of never.
“Now, there’s great communication, there’s confidence, and they know they can make plays,” Kelly said. “They know that they’re capable of playing at a high level.
“A lot of that is confidence. You make plays when you have confidence, and then you go from there. They’re feeling very confident about their ability to go back there and be playmakers and communicate effectively.”
Not only could you see it Saturday on the practice field, you could hear it, and that’s sweet music to Kelly’s ears.