The 21st century has offered a mixed bag of defensive performances in South Bend, but from the outset of the 2000 season through the record-setting Irish defense of 2012, there remained one constant:
One, if not two Notre Dame safeties starred, regardless of the defense’s overall output.
Beginning with the 2000 season and former running back-turned NFL second round safety selection Tony Driver (2000-01), Irish defenses boasted the following:
-- Gerome Sapp (2001-02) and Glenn Earl (2002) as quasi All-Americans on the most productive defense in recent program history
-- The hard-hitting tandem of Tom Zbikowski (2004-06) and Chinedum Ndukwe (2005-06), with the former staring as a playmaking return man as well
-- David Bruton (2007-08) and Kyle McCarthy (2008-09) as beacons of light on terrible, terrible defenses
-- Harrison Smith (2010-11) playing alongside unsung standouts Jamoris Slaughter (2010-11) and eventual senior star Zeke Motta (2010-2012), with Motta blossoming in his final season, guiding an Irish defense that surrendered just seven passing touchdowns in a 12-game regular season.
If Irish fans could count on one thing it was that the backline of Notre Dame’s defense – through six different defensive coordinators between 2000 and 2012 – would consistently churn out playmakers along its last line of defense.
With the exception of McCarthy, the 2009 Irish Defensive MVP, each of the above named safeties heard his name called on draft day. (McCarthy played four NFL seasons thereafter.)
Forgettable, replaceable, and ultimately, beatable.
THE WRONG KIND OF HAT TRICK
Starters over the three-year period since Motta and the last great Irish defense of 2012 include Matthias Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and, briefly, Drue Tranquill.
Each has greatly aided the Irish cause in some regard while struggling with inconsistency as a starting safety.
-- Farley served as the squad’s special teams MVP (2015) and as a playmaking nickel (2014) but struggled with the requirements of safety play in 2013, the latter after showing well alongside Motta in 2012.
-- Collinsworth likewise earned special teams MVP honors (2011) but a shoulder surgery ended his 2012 season and knee and shoulder injuries truncated his 2014 campaign.
-- Shumate started for the better part of four seasons, showing well at times in run support but never finding a niche among the myriad coverage aspects of the job.
-- Redfield has been both benched and suspended in his two seasons as a starter, while occasionally flashing the form that made him a four-star prospect per Scout.com. Like Farley (shoulder in 2013) and Collinsworth, Redfield was set back by a bad break – his fractured wrist in August Camp 2015, an injury that noticeably affected his season.
-- Tranquill has been injured in both of his two seasons (he has three years of eligibility remaining as the result of early-season knee surgery last fall) and though he has looked dominant at times against option teams and as a Dime package linebacker, his coverage skills appeared not-ready-for-prime time in brief starting roles (namely vs. Northwestern in 2014).
A NEW ERA?
Asked this spring to identify positive commonalities for the present-day Irish defense – a unit that has been both good and decidedly bad on a given football Saturday – Redfield offered:
“I would say it’s (being) assignment correct, limiting explosive plays, and all being on the same page. Sometimes there’s looser coverage, so since there’s looser coverage, the pass rush isn’t getting there. Or if we have tight coverage but the pass rush isn’t getting there (the coverage attempt is futile). Being on the same page at all times and playing sound football, consistently, in a way that can allow us to make big plays.”
The pass rush might not get there in 2016, either, unless a freshman such as Daelin Hayes proves adept at the elusive skill, or inconsistent junior Andrew Trumbetti provides speed and tenacity off the edge as he showed in his most recent half of football, the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State.
It’s likely that Redfield and Tranquill will be joined by freshman Devin Studstill, sixth-year senior Avery Sebastian, and at least one more freshman (presumably Jalen Elliott) as competing safeties this summer.
Their collective mission? To end the program’s three seasons of scuffling at the position.
“We’re going to have a lot of young guys that will be competing in there,” said head coach Brian Kelly near the conclusion of spring ball. “Getting them into some of the OTAs in June, some film study, picking up the defense will be important for us.
“Max has done some good things in the past week or two that we’re really pleased with. We hope that trend continues. We all know what Studstill has done. Sebastian has done some really good things. Tranquill has been really, really good.
“We’ll have some young guys back there that we’ll get in here in June that we’ll spend some time with and look to get them ready for August.”
Notre Dame lost NFL draft picks at wide receiver, running back, on the offensive and defensive line, at linebacker, and at cornerback over the off-season.
It’s time Redfield and the new crop of Irish safeties join their 2000-2012 predecessors at the position and play to that level as well.