SOUTH BEND — Given the chance to stew in frustration and disappointment, Max Redfield turned to logic to begin an ascent from a late-season demotion that continues even more impressively this spring.
Roughly two-thirds of the way through Notre Dame spring football practice, the rising junior safety is a wow factor on a defense that curdled last November — along with Redfield’s growth curve.
“Obviously it was kind of rough for me,” the 11-game starter said of a two-game stretch in losses to Northwestern and Louisville in which his meaningful field time was relegated to special teams duty.
“Nobody likes to get benched, but at that time, you have to reflect. ‘I’m getting benched for a reason. The coaches have to have some kind of motive behind this.’ So it kind of game me some time to reflect upon it and understand. ‘I’m not entitled to this spot, and I have to earn it every day.’ ”
A season-ending injury to freshman Drue Tranquill gave Redfield his opening. His harnessing of the details that he earlier had been missing started the renaissance with a 14-tackle performance in the 31-28 Music City capsizing of LSU on Dec 30.
The momentum this spring seems to have accelerated, with the hiring of and synchronicity with former Irish All-America cornerback Todd Lyght as ND’s new defensive backs coach, shortly after predecessor Kerry Cooks bolted for Oklahoma in early February.
“We feel like we upgraded across the board, especially with coach Lyght,” Redfield said. “He has a great amount of experience in college and the NFL. We feel like he’s a winner all around. He won a Super Bowl as well as a national championship. He’s a great guy so far, and we’re all benefitting from him.”
Throw fellow starting safety, senior-to-be Elijah Shumate, in that benefitting group as well. When ND head coach Brian Kelly was recently asked to identify the positives coaxed from the spring so far, the pair of former enigmas were among the first names mentioned.
“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” said Kelly, whose Irish return from a six-day Easter hiatus for practice No. 10 of 15 on Wednesday.
“We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grasped a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”
It’s a position group that will be bolstered by numbers this summer, by Tranquill’s full clearance from knee surgery and by the arrival of Cal transfer Avery Sebastian and freshmen Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta.
Senior-to-be Nicky Baratti is part of the spring rotation, hoping multiple shoulder injuries that resulted in two lost seasons are finally in his rear-view mirror. Defensive back hybrid Matthias Farley is also taking some safety reps and safety-turned linebacker John Turner is back at his original position.
Yet the 6-1, 198-pound Redfield continues to put distance between himself and the rest of the group, as well as his befuddling slump five months ago.
“He’s a very eager learner, great leader on the field,” Lyght said of the former five-star prospect from Mission Viejo, Calif. “Tremendous teammate, and I think he wants to pull guys along in the right direction. I think we need more guys that have his intensity.”
Redfield certainly didn’t lack it when he first arrived on campus in June of 2013. His aspirations were to not only crack the safety rotation, but to get some reps at wide receiver as well.
Neither materialized during the regular season. Redfield had just two assisted tackles in very limited playing time over the first seven games of 2013 on his way to 12 for the season.
Former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had a tendency to let even mature, talented freshmen incubate unless forced to do otherwise. But once Diaco left to take the Connecticut head coaching job, Kelly inserted Redfield into the starting lineup for the first time, in ND’s season-ending Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Rutgers.
Brian VanGorder came in the following spring with a complex and aggressive NFL scheme to replace Diaco’s, and Redfield was among those who had trouble treading water, let alone swimming in the new waters.
“The amount of time we had to learn it and install it was obviously shorter than what was comfortable for us,” Redfield said.
Losing middle linebacker and eventual team MVP Joe Schmidt to a season-ending leg injury on Nov. 1 compounded the mass confusion as ND’s defense plummeted to a final ranking of 71st in total defense and 84th in pass-efficiency defense.
The defense is much less Schmidt-reliant now in terms of direction. On a unit that returns 10 starters (as well as two from the 2013 team — linebacker Jarrett Grace and cornerback KeiVarae Russell), the mental overload is fading at all levels of the defense.
“Communication can always get better,” Redfield said of his next evolutionary steps. “Your defensive skills can always get better. Our individual drills with coach Lyght are great. The fundamentals and techniques he’s teaching us are great.
“The fact that he was such a great player and now he’s coaching us, he knows how to basically translate the message he’s trying to get to us. And he makes it really clear and understands the fundamentals that are going to make us succeed.”
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