Penchant for the Pick?

Prediction No. 15 in our summer series projects a rarity at the program: four interceptions from the hands of three Irishmen.

Over the last 35 football seasons (since 1980), Notre Dame defenses have produced 11 players with five or more interceptions, but just once did teammates turn the trick in the same campaign. You’re likely able to guess the era – the program’s halcyon days under Lou Holtz and a 1992 season that saw a pair of juniors, safety Jeff Burris and cornerback Tom Carter, both pick off five passes over the 12-game slate.

Four is a much more common barometer for team-leading interception total, as 13 Irish players have recorded at least a quartet of interceptions in the new millennium -- though just once during that span have *three Irish defenders picked off four passes in the same campaign.

That feat will repeat in 2015 when a trio of Irishmen turns the trick for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit, which brings us to Prediction No. 15 in our ongoing summer series:

A list of Notre Dame’s interceptions leaders in the new millennium includes 10 seasons, either in reality, or hypothetically, in which four interceptions would have led the squad. The same holds true for seven of 10 seasons in the 1990s and 8 of 10 in the 1980s.

2014 (16) – Matthias Farley and Cole Luke with 4 apiece
2013 (13) – Austin Collinsworth and Dan Fox with 3
2012 (16) – Manti Te’o 7 and Bennett Jackson 4
2011 (8) – Robert Blanton and Gary Gray with 2 apiece
2010 (18) – Harrison Smith 7
2009 (12) – Kyle McCarthy 5
2008 (14) – David Bruton 4
2007 (11) – David Bruton 3
2006 (11) – Mike Richardson 4
2005 (13) – Tom Zbikowski 5
2004 (9) – Three players with 2 apiece
2003 (13) – Quentin Burrell 4
2002 (21) – *Shane Walton with 7; Courtney Watson and Gerome Sapp with 4 apiece
2001 (14) – Vontez Duff 3
2000 (13) – Ron Israel 3

-- *Walton, Watson and Sapp in 2002 rank as the only trio of Irish teammates to pick off at least four enemy passes in the same season.

-- Of note, the high-water mark of the 1990s was five picks, once by linebacker Lyron Cobbins in 1995, and also by the aforementioned Carter and Burris in 1992, plus previously by Carter as a true sophomore in 1991.

-- Current secondary coach Todd Lyght posted the best total of the 1980s picking off a whopping eight passes in 1989. It marks the third-highest total in program history and most since Mike Townsend set what has since been an unapproachable program record with 10 in 1972.

-- Harrison Smith and Manti Te’o’s total of 7 INT in 2010 and 2012, respectively, are the most since Lyght’s 8 picks in ’89. No Irish player has recorded six total since Joe Restic for the 1977 National Champions.

-- Despite the presence of all-time program great Bobby Taylor on one corner, the 1994 Fighting Irish picked off just seven passes as a team en route to a shocking 6-5-1 swan dive. For the sake of comparison, the 1977 Irish picked off a program record 29 passes.

Expect three different Irish defenders to collect four (or more) picks this fall, a prediction due in part to a Notre Dame defense predicated on stopping the run on first down and creating confusion thereafter.

Year No. 1 of the VanGorder era including 23 total turnovers including 16 interceptions, and while fumble statistics (7 recovered/13 caused by the Irish last season) are difficult to project, I expect at least 16 more picks in 2015. Led by the following candidates:

KeiVarae Russell – Channeling LeBron James: Not four? Not five? Not six? Look for Russell to lead the Irish in interceptions and do some damage as a return man post-pick, to boot.

Cole Luke – Picked off four passes last season as a neophyte on the edge, always asked to cover the opponent’s top target. Luke enters 2015 highly undervalued, not only nationally, but also by any Irish fans. He’ll grab a quartet again this fall.

Max Redfield – You’ve heard the name ad nauseam since the spring culminating with a cart-before-the-horse All-America nomination by esteemed analysts Phil Steele. Hype aside, Redfield’s improve knowledge of the offense and athletic gifts make him the perfect candidate to take away four or more in 2015.

Matthias Farley – Picked off four passes as a part-time starter (Nickel) last fall and here’s the key: none of them were cheap -- no tipped balls -- each was in competitive game action, and a whopping 87 return yards ensued

Farley stepped in front of three receivers among his four created turnovers including two that afforded the Irish a chance to win late in games lost to Northwestern (an end zone interception) and Arizona State (to spark a massive comeback effort). Playing time is the issue for Farley’s end-season statistics, but he’ll make the most of his chances entering his fourth season as a starter/regular.

Elijah Shumate – Not an established ball hawk, Shumate would need to make the leap from his first career pick last September (you might remember it: to four over a 13-game slate. But remember, Farley had picked off just three career passes before his quartet in 2014.  

Jaylon Smith – At least part-time duty to the field side of the formation (Sam linebacker) is expected for the consensus pre-season All-American. He has the skillset to join Manti Te’o, Lyron Cobbins, and Courtney Watson in the four-plus pick club among Irish linebackers over the last four decades.

-- The Final Word: Any three Irish defenders that collect at least four interceptions will fulfill this pre-season prediction, but for the record, the official projection calls for Russell, Luke, and Redfield to secure four apiece in 2015.

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