SOUTH BEND — It was more a verbal squirm than a dance, but Brian Kelly’s execution of it on Tuesday was nearly flawless.
In a way, much to his chagrin.
The Notre Dame head football coach would much rather have been prattling on at his marathon-ish weekly press conference about a turning point at the free safety position — a permanent one, that is — as the ninth-ranked Irish (6-1) shoot for their 16th Halloween victory all time without a loss, Saturday night at 21st-ranked Temple (7-0).
ABC-TV’s cameras, ESPN’s College GameDay and a sell-out crowd at Lincoln Financial Field (68,532) will all be on hand to take in the Owls’ first-ever matchup that involves two ranked teams (8 p.m. EDT kickoff).
Instead the Max Redfield/Matthias Farley time-share becomes the biggest piece of unfinished business coming out of the bye week for an Irish defense still groping for a sustained, consistent performance as it percolates as the nation’s No. 50 defense (in total defense).
That’s 15 spots or more below any of its five remaining opponents and 36 shy of Temple’s total defense national ranking.
“Clearly as coaches and players, (we) know what our deficiencies are, and we know how to fix them,” Kelly said. “We’ve just got to get that done.”
Presumably that would mean separation between junior Redfield, a preseason All-American in some circles based on his five-star pedigree and his sheer athleticism, and grad Farley, whose dependability and versatility keep him in the picture.
“Honestly, what I want and what we have are two different things,” Kelly said when pressed about the depth chart dead heat.
And then came the safety shuffle.
“Both those kids are committed to being the best players that they can be, and we are coaching them every single day,” he said. “You following my drift? We're working hard with them every day.
“We just feel like I think both of those guys are going to give us what we need at the position, and it's going to be one where both of them are going to have to help us win.”
Translation: Redfield is back on the roller coaster.
What’s mitigated the damage from a big-picture standpoint has been the play at the strong safety position from Elijah Shumate. Kelly was effusive in his praise of the senior heading into ND’s 41-31 win over USC on Oct 17.
“I wish I had him another couple of years. He’s really coming into his own,” Kelly said. “Really proud of him. Some guys it just takes longer to get to that point. He was still cooking. He just wasn’t done yet.
“He was working so hard at his craft and he was struggling. It was wearing on him, and to see him starting to break through is really one of the gratifying things as a coach that you get to see — a player break through that wall. You can see it’s coming down for him.”
As far as the existing wall at free safety, in sheer numbers Redfield has 28 tackles, seventh-best on the team. But 14 of them came in one game, a seemingly breakthrough performance against Clemson on Oct. 3. He also has one interception, one pass breakup and one QB hurry.
Farley has 21 tackles, seven of them coming in the second half against Navy on Oct. 10 after Drue Tranquill suffered a season-ending injury. He also has a forced fumble on his résumé.
What those numbers don’t tell you is about missed assignments. Where that shows up is in big plays that have gouged ND’s overall defensive numbers.
“Your safeties have got to be that — they have got to be your safety,” Kelly said. “They have to be there if there is a missed tackle in your front seven.
“So (against USC) we missed a tackle (by) an unblocked (player) that we should have made, and then it gets to the safety level, where we miss another tackle.
“There is no waiver wire. We're not cutting anybody. We're not trading anybody. We just have to work with the guys that we have and get better, and they are committed to doing that.
“They see the film and we see the film. We have to put them in good position to succeed. We have to continue to do that and then we have to be positive with them and get the best out of them every day.”
Tranquill, a sophomore who can play both safety positions but is more geared to strong safety, won’t return to action until 2016.
Grad transfer Avery Sebastian, also a better fit at strong safety, suffered a broken bone in his foot in the Sept. 5 season-opening win over Texas and now may be lost for the season.
“Probably (it) would be two, three weeks to even get him to the level of play,” Kelly said. “He's been on a stimulator for bone growth. It just has not come back to the level that most do. So if we can't see progress in the next couple of weeks, then we'll have to decide.”
The decision is whether to try to milk a couple of weeks out of Sebastian at the end of the regular season and for a postseason game, or apply for a medical redshirt year and a sixth year of eligibility for 2016.
“We'll have to see what he's capable of doing for us over the next couple of weeks,” Kelly said. “But it's just been a difficult injury in the sense that it usually heals up quickly, but that he hasn't had the bone growth necessary.”
Senior safety Nicky Baratti, meanwhile, has played in all seven games since missing the 2013 and 2014 seasons with shoulder injuries, but his impact has been subtle, with two tackles over those seven games. Freshman Mykelti Williams has shown flashes in practice but is still on a trajectory to redshirt.
Which leaves Redfield and Farley to upgrade the position over the final five regular-season games.
“You know, we clearly know some of the things that we have to get better at,” Kelly said. “And if we are more consistent as a defense, we are going to be really good. We just have to get to that point.”