SOUTH BEND — He had thrown tough love at the conundrum. And, equally intermittently, patience.
And a steady stream of hope.
Yet when the transformation that Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly had been futilely coaxing and waiting on for three years started to unfold before his very eyes on Saturday, he curbed his enthusiasm to make sure he wasn’t watching a mirage.
On Thursday, after six consecutive days of consistency and progress from senior free safety Max Redfield, Kelly let go of the notion that the radical ascension he had heard whispers about in July and now was witnessing in training camp might be fleeting.
“I hate to throw clichés around,” Kelly said Thursday between two-a-day sessions in oppressive heat/humidity, “but he’s been that guy that everyone was hoping for out of high school. He’s playing at that level. He’s playing at an elite level.”
Redfield’s struggles have been magnified by his five-star framing coming out of Mission Viejo (Calif.) High and the expectations that sort of imprisoned him rather than catalyzing the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder. He’s one of 18 players to sign with Notre Dame in the Rivals.com era (2002-present) to carry the tag of elite recruit and the only defensive back among the 18 in that group.
He’s been brought along slowly as a freshman, demoted a sophomore, suspended as a junior and most recently, this past spring — leapfrogged on the depth chart by a true freshman, Devin Studstill.
Arguably of any player on the Notre Dame roster, Redfield has the most to prove in August training camp.
“Maturity,” Kelly said of what’s behind the impressive run of proof by Redfield so far.
If Redfield’s leap is indeed lasting, Kelly can check off perhaps the most important box on his to-do-list prior to the season opener with Texas on Sept. 4 in Austin. Picking a starting quarterback between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire is an easy win-win by comparison.
Redfield playing at a high level is a linchpin in the potential improvement of the defense, the side of the ball that will either nudge Notre Dame into playoff contention or waste an offense that is likely to play well enough to get there.
“He went through a couple of rough spots,” Kelly said. “I’ve seen it over 26 years — sometimes it’s just time. And he’s been impressive.”
A tepid pass rush that landed the Irish 75th nationally in sacks last season and 109th out of 127 in the FBS in turnovers forced, has mirrored some of the improvement ND’s secondary has shown early on.
And it’s not just pass rush, but elevated defensive line play as a whole.
“Jerry (Tillery) is playing so much more physical,” Kelly said of the sophomore, who slid over to play defensive tackle from his backup nose guard duties last season. “At times he was a little bit finesse last year.”
The Hayeses, junior Jay and freshman Daelin, continue to solidify the rush end spot, with Daelin Hayes perhaps the most impressive freshman on either side of the ball to date.
“I think he’s that hybrid guy that can drop, that can come off the edge” Kelly said of the 6-4, 250-pound former five-star prospect. “I see him in our sub package. He can play over the tight end. I mean he’s been impressive. He’s going to be a good player for us.”
Senior Isaac Rochell has been a good player for ND for a long time, but he is showing signs of transforming his game to an elite level.
“His movement, his first-step quickness,” Kelly said. “He was a bit of a lumberer at times. He was more of a win-at-the-point-of-attack (player). (He’s) Much more agile. Great shape physically.”
On the mend
Sophomore defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway underwent surgery Wednesday, per Kelly, for a Jones fracture in his left foot that will sideline 6-4, 300-pounder for the next eight weeks.
Dew-Treadway, who redshirted in 2015, was competing for a backup position at defensive tackle behind surging starter Jerry Tillery.
• Junior cornerback Nick Watkins is back on the shelf for at least four weeks, as his surgically repaired left arm has been slow to heal completely.
Watkins underwent surgery on April 2, midway through spring practice, and was expected to be 100 percent by June, but the injury has lingered.
“He had a procedure to stimulate bone growth,” Kelly said. “We hope that this procedure, which is a bit of an aggressive procedure, does the trick.”
The Irish already lost senior cornerback Devin Butler until at least October when he rebroke his left foot in June.
Watkins’ only career start came Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State when he replaced an injured Butler, who had replaced an injured KeiVarae Russell.
Cornerback remains a deep position for the Irish in 2016, although more of that depth will have to be provided now by freshmen Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride and Julian Love, all of whom have looked impressive in early workouts.
• Nose guard Daniel Cage, safety Studstill and running back Josh Adams all were limited in Thursday morning’s practice because of hamstring injuries. Senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. was limited with tendinitis.
“Just being careful,” Kelly said of Hunter, whose condition was brought to light through ND’s sports science GPS technology that monitors intensity through repetition.
• Sophomore wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown made a number of spectacular catches but also had a few drops Thursday, the latter Kelly attributed in part to a thumb sprain.
“He has a tendency to want to try to catch the ball with his hands up,” Kelly said of the current depth-chart topper at the outside/boundary receiver position. “He’s just got to flip his hands and be a little more aggressive.
“He’s dealing with an injury on his thumb. First time. He’s protecting it. He’s just got to be a little more aggressive.”
Depth chart battles
Kelly said both contenders for the starting quarterback position, Kizer and Zaire, continue to play at a high level and neither one has separated from the other.
The interesting twist Thursday morning was Kelly’s decision to subject both of them to full contact late in the practice session.
• Two bystanders in spring practice due to injury, junior Greer Martini and sophomore Te’von Coney, have surged past sophomore Asmar Bilal in the race to replace All-American Jaylon Smith at weakside linebacker.
“Greer is really smart and puts himself into really good positions,” Kelly said. “And Te’von’s been really impressive. I’d probably say Te’von has caught my eye the last couple of practices.”
• Sophomore Tristen Hoge’s re-entry into the mix at starting right guard has a lot to do with his athleticism and how that fits so well with the way the Irish offense is evolving.
“In 2012, we were strictly an inside-outside zone team,” Kelly said. “The Golic kid (Mike Golic Jr.), big kid, didn’t move great, but he was physical as heck. I mean, he would knock you in the mouth and he would be a good fit in that kind of offense.
“This kind of offense requires more of a puller, a guy that can get out in space. And Tristen can do that. … We’ve changed the nature of the guard position. He’s got to be a guy who can get out and run.”
Helping to bring along a wide receiver corps that counts one career start among them is former Notre Dame receiver Corey Robinson.
Robinson went from senior-to-be potential starter to student assistant coach in June, when he decided it wasn’t worth it to come back from multiple concussions and try to play.
“He’s got a great personality and he’s so likeable,” Kelly said of the school’s reigning student body president. “I don’t know that he could yell at anybody, so he’s a great balance with me. I’ll shout something, and he’ll have a smile on his face when he brings that same point to a kid.
“They love having him around. He can bring his experience. ‘Hey I ran this route this way, and maybe if you try this …’ It’s great to have him around. It’s a positive influence.”