In the midst of winter conditioning and seven weeks away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most important questions to be answered over rest of the winter, spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #5 – WILL REDFIELD BLOOM?
A new era of safety play begins in South Bend this season with at least four and as many as five incoming freshmen slated to begin their careers as the last line of defense in Brian VanGorder’s defense.
The quintet has the benefit of learning below an ideally tiered quintet of elders, with redshirt-freshman Mykelti Williams, sophomore Nicco Fertitta, junior Drue Tranquill, senior Max Redfield, and expected-to-return graduate student Avery Sebastian.
Yes, there’s always a “but” and in this case it’s the technically correct but oh-so-inaccurate paragraph above. The class tiers of Williams, Fertitta, Tranquill, Redfield, and Sebastian are indeed ideally staggered, but there’s an underlying issue.
No one knows if any of them can play.
WHY REDFIELD MATTERS
Fans of Drue Tranquill are likely atwitter with the comment above, because if Tranquill has proven anything during his first two seasons in South Bend, it’s that he can indeed play this game, and at multiple positions to boot.
But a major aspect of the sport is avoiding injury and Tranquill’s already had multiple surgeries to repair torn ACL’s and is thus a walking question mark at a position where lateral quickness and explosiveness are paramount. No one doubts Tranquill’s ability to make it back (heck, knowing the kid and his dedication combined with apparent supernatural healing abilities, he’s probably already “back”) but staying healthy will be a concern attached to his career until he proves he can do so.
Ditto Avery Sebastian, a clear-cut sixth-season candidate because, well, he clearly missed two seasons due to injury. A torn Achilles and a broken foot are the major maladies that have plagued him over his collegiate career, first at California and last season in South Bend. Like Tranquill, Sebastian will only prove reliable after he has proven he can stay on the field.
Both can play, both can hit, both demand a contingency plan.
As for Fertitta and Williams, the former is primarily a special teams contributor (and potential starter there) while the latter is just as unproven as his fellow true freshmen about to join the fray.
Then there’s Redfield.
Four stars affixed to his recruitment per Scout.com, top tier classroom intelligence, football speed and leaping ability, outstanding hands, no perceptible body fat, three seasons at the program, 36 games played, 23 starts, two interceptions, 6 passes defended (that’s fewer than Joe Schmidt for the sake of comparison), one benching, one suspension, and as a result of all of that…One Big Question Mark.
Why? And How? (Yes, that’s two questions.)
Why does Redfield still rank among the team’s question marks entering his third season as a starter under the same defensive coordinator? That question, perhaps more than any other, is sure to plague Irish fans until the senior safety proves he’s capable of playing at a Major Bowl Level – because only then can he begin to lead a back line in obvious need of senior guidance.
SOLID WILL SUFFICE
The Good? How about Redfield’s full-speed sprint and end zone collision/pass breakup to negate a North Carolina touchdown in 2014? Or the since lost from your memories third-down Stuff at Clemson to force the Tigers final punt? – one that set up Notre Dame for its potential game-tying touchdown march.
Then there’s the bad. To avoid piling on, consider Notre Dame’s defense allowed 29 touchdown drives in excess of 70 yards last fall and yielded 23 opponent snaps that gained at least 35 yards.
While that’s by no means all on the free safety, it’s clear Redfield hasn’t exactly claimed the deep post as his turf to date.
Jim Dent: “You’re benching me? That’s my net man. You can’t do that!”
Herb Brooks: “They just scored ten goals Jim. Right now, it's everybody's net…”
Fans, media, and perhaps the Irish coaching staff spent the better part of 2015 waiting for the preternaturally talented Redfield to “break out.” (Renowned analyst Phil Steele offered the absurd pre-season designation of All-American.)
For 2016, solid would suffice. Redfield doesn’t have to be Harrison Smith 2010-11, or David Bruton 2007-08, or Zeke Motta 2012. He doesn’t even have to be a healthy Jamoris Slaughter. (It’d be nice, and it would likely equate to playoff contention, but it’s not mandatory for team defensive success.)
Somewhere between solid and “better-than-that”is the necessary destination for Max Redfield as a senior safety. If he falls short, it’s not reasonable to expect an otherwise youth-filled, injury-riddled unit to pick up the slack.
As Romeo Okwara, Chris Brown, Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Jonas Gray, Harrison Smith, Maurice Stovall, Julius Jones, and scores of other Irish have illustrated, in college football, it’s your senior season that leaves an indelible mark.
The bet here is that Redfield leaves his in 2016.