With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field Sept. 5 under the lights against Texas.
1. Elijah Shumate (senior)
2. Drue Tranquill (sophomore)
1. Max Redfield (junior)
2. Avery Sebastian (graduate student)
Last year, we saw both Redfield and Shumate benched in November in favor of an injured Austin Collinsworth — who was playing with one healthy shoulder — and a greenhorn in Tranquill. It was a stopgap measure taken after the Irish were blown out by Arizona State, one used to send a message to the talented safety duo that their jobs weren’t guaranteed.
Still, Notre Dame’s best chance for success as a defense comes with Shumate and Redfield playing. There’s better depth at safety this year, with Tranquill having a year of snaps under his belt (though he’s coming off a torn ACL) and Sebastian, a Cal transfer, providing plenty of experience. Matthias Farley could be a safety net, though Notre Dame preferred to keep him solely as a nickel back last year, while if healthy Nicky Baratti could also add some depth.
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If everything goes right, though, Notre Dame won’t come close to the point where it feels it has to bench Redfield and Shumate again.
Biggest question: Are communication breakdowns a thing of the past?
Redfield and Shumate struggled with communication throughout the season, and with a banged-up front seven, things quickly crumbled for the Irish defense in November. Coach Brian Kelly said both safeties made strides during Music City Bowl practices in December, though sub-optimal LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings still threw a 75-yard touchdown, and all-world Tigers running back Leonard Fournette ripped off an 89-yard touchdown run
There’s no excuse for the communication errors to return this fall, though, with Redfield and Shumate playing together for a second year under the same defensive coordinator. Both players are extremely talented, so if the mental mistakes are lessened, they could be in for big seasons.
Notre Dame added a pair of safeties to its ranks on signing day: four-star Indianapolis native Mykelti Williams and three-star Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) alum Nicco Fertitta. We saw defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder in 2014 use Tranquill, a true freshman, in a dime role before swapping him into the starting lineup with Redfield and Shumate struggling, so there is precedent for a freshman safety to get on the field. But ideally, Williams and Fertitta can slide into special teams roles or be redshirted this fall.
Notre Dame allowed 185 plays of 10 or more yards last year and 16 plays of 40 or more yards, both ranking in the bottom third of FBS teams. Under Bob Diaco’s defense, those big-chunk plays weren’t always killers given the defense’s bend-don’t-break philosophy and an ability to stop teams in the red zone.
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But Irish opponents reached the red zone 50 times and scored touchdowns on 70 percent of those possessions inside the 20. It’d be unfair to pin all those big-chunk and red-zone issues on Redfield and Shumate, but plenty of them could’ve been prevented by better back-end communication. Notre Dame’s defense can’t afford to average allowing nearly 15 plays of 10 or more yards again this fall.
They said it
“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or any time during the season. We don’t see the missed assignments, we see clearly two guys that have grasped a hold of what we’re doing out there and kind of settled into two very solid football players for us back there.” — Kelly on Redfield and Shumate’s spring practice improvements