Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate coming out of his shell

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – Once Elijah Shumate gets set in the back end of the Notre Dame football team’s defense, there’s more on his mind than what he’ll do next.

The 6-foot, 208-pound junior safety has to be concerned with what everybody will do next.

A quiet fellow by nature, Shumate has been forced out of his comfort zone the past couple of weeks. An emergency replacement for fifth-year captain Austin Collinsworth, who sustained a knee injury in practice two days before the season-opener, Shumate has been thrust into a leadership role.

He is the guy entrusted with making sure everyone in the Irish secondary is aligned properly. In order to do that, he must completely understand the full function of the defense on any given play.

After that recognition kicks in, which must happen quickly, Shumate then confirms that everyone is in the right place, understanding the call that’s in place.

In football terms, that falls under the broad scope of “communication.” Against Rice, communication collapses were deemed responsible for long pass plays of 53, 30, 26 and 26 yards by the Owls, who amassed 226 yards through the air.

After a week in which communication was front and center on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s list of improvements that had to be made, the progress was remarkable. Michigan completed just one big pass play (33 yards) in a 31-0 thumping.

“I’m getting everybody lined up, in position,” Shumate said. “I have to be forceful; telling everybody what to do in their alignments on the play.

“You have to learn everything on the defense – what the linebackers are doing, what the linemen are doing. And you have to know where you have to be. You have to be the quarterback of the defense.”

Heading into Saturday night’s Shamrock Series game against Purdue, expectations are even higher.

“(Shumate) made progress,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “There is no question. This was probably the best game that he's played since he's been here.

“We still had 34 mental errors on defense. They didn't cost us, but I want to temper it by saying there is still some growth there that needs to take place. What (Shumate) did that he hasn't been doing is he communicated so much more effectively outside of what his normal comfort level is.

“We've talked about this a little bit. He's not a guy that really is somebody that speaks out, and he's not a great communicator. He keeps to himself. He did a really good job. But there are still things that he has to improve on there.

“I really think it was he didn't want to let his teammates down. He knew he was counted on. When you're placed into that position, he didn't want to let his teammates down. That was really the impetus that put him in the kind of role of playing the way he did (against Michigan).”

“Coach got on me (after the Rice game), I’m not really a vocal type of guy,” Shumate said. “Coach was telling me, ‘You’ve gotta be vocal playing that position. You’ve gotta be forceful. You’ve gotta be a captain out there.’

“He challenged me to do that. I was working on that the whole week (leading up to Michigan). It’s just a transition, like a lot of things. You want to do things to better the team. If that’s what it takes …”

“Elijah has a lot of confidence; he’s had a lot of reps at safety,” said nickelback Matthias Farley, who played safety last year. “That was a unique situation the first week with (Collinsworth’s injury).

“Gaining the confidence from week 1 to week 2, you saw the progress.

“When everybody realizes the team’s much bigger than one person, it’s easier (to get out of a comfort zone). If you’re a safety, you have to make the call. If you’re not a vocal guy, you have to get over it and make the call because people are waiting on what you say.”

Besides getting everyone in the proper position, Shumate’s individual performance was much better against the Wolverines. After having three tackles and a pass breakup against Rice, Shumate had a career-high 10 tackles and his first interception that sealed the shutout.

Along with sophomore Max Redfield, who’s also just getting comfortable as a regular contributor, the safety position is one of the fastest-evolving areas on the Notre Dame team.

“We’ve been watching a lot of film; practicing together,” Shumate said of the growing relationship with Redfield. “Max and I are just getting to know each other. It’s becoming second nature.”

The challenge this week has been to iron out as many of those 34 mental errors as possible in time to pitch a perfect game against the Boilermakers.

“Well, there are a couple of things,” Kelly said. “Obviously, one, it wasn't just one player. There are defensive linemen, linebackers, across the board, we were able to make up for them because we have some skill players at different positions that can make up for some of those mental errors.

“We have a lot that we can talk about this week in terms of getting better, and they saw the film and can see a shutout and know that there is a lot there that they need to clean up.

“You can't get a better teaching environment than that. You've shut out an opponent, and there are all these errors that need to get cleaned up. It's a pretty good teaching environment right now.”

“The coaches preach perfection,” Shumate said. “I made a play on a ball, coach was saying, I should have been aligned different. It’s something you can fix, even with the good (outcome). We take the win, we’re happy with it, but we have to get better.”

One thing Shumate would like to see improved was the hit Redfield applied on the last play of the Michigan game. It kept Shumate’s pick from going to the house.

“(The interception) was a play that we had rehearsed all week,” Shumate said. “We disguised the coverage and I just made a play on the ball.

“Once I got my hands on the ball, I just wanted to score; I wanted to get into the end zone.”

Shumate – a running back during his high school days in New Jersey – did make it to the end zone. However, the score on the final play of the game was negated when Redfield was called for a penalty for his hit on Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.

So ... was he angry at Redfield?

“I was at first,” Shumate said with a laugh. “It was a good play. It happens. I was a little heartbroken, but it happens. I was just happy to get the interception.”

Even a quiet guy had something to say about that.

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Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate has upped his communications game along with his play in the field for the Irish. (SBT File Photo)