Notre Dame football - Bowl offers opportunity to experiment

Commentary

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK - Perfect time for an experiment.

One area of the Notre Dame football team's defense that has been begging for help this season has been safety.

Key plays have been missed. Whiffs at tackles at the most inopportune times. A position that exceeded expectation a year ago has wallowed in a puddle of ineffectiveness this season.

Kerry Cooks, cornerbacks coach and interim defensive coordinator, will use Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl meeting with Rutgers as a proving ground for some five-star talent.

Freshman Max Redfield landed in South Bend with a reputation as an athletic talent beyond his years and a hitter who could make an immediate impact.

Something, though, was holding him back.

Whenever the 6-foot-1, 194-pound Redfield got on the field, it was either on special teams or mop-up duty (10 tackles in 11 games). Quality minutes were rare for Redfield. Heck, it was so bad that though safeties Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy were suspended for the Stanford game, Redfield still didn't get into the rotation.

The Irish instead played two safeties — Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley — the entire game rather than work Redfield in for even spot duty.

Nothing to lose Saturday.

Cooks, who commanded the bowl Media Day spotlight Thursday — after sharing the defensive coordinator title with recently-departed Bob Diaco through the season — said it's about time Redfield got his shot.

"If there's one guy who has raised his level of play through the last month (of practice) it would be Max Redfield," Cooks said. "We knew he was a talented kid. He slowly but surely started to progress. He's earning a little bit more playing time. It was a case of maturation over time.

"Our safeties are responsible for basically lining up our defense. It's not really a matter of how talented and athletic you are. To be able to play a safety for us it's a matter of how (mentally prepared) you can be to make those adjustments and to communicate those calls not only to the corners, but to the linebackers and the d-linemen.

"Our defense, we put a lot of pressure on (the safeties). It just takes time. It takes reppin' it, seeing it on film over and over and over again. Eventually, slowly but surely, guys start to get it. They start to see the big picture from a schematic standpoint."

Of course, Rutgers isn't Stanford. Or Southern Cal. Or, heck, even BYU or Pittsburgh, for that matter.

There's a little more margin for error.

This is a 6-6 bunch of Scarlet Knights who are led by a senior quarterback, 6-0, 200-pound Chas Dodd, who has started two games in the last two seasons.

After starting 15 games his first two years, Dodd lost his job and playing time as a junior, appearing in three games and throwing just one pass all season. When Gary Nova evolved into a human turnover machine (14 interceptions in 10 starts this year), Dodd — with his beard and shoulder-length pony tail - — got the call to start the last two.

He will be under center Saturday, though as small as he is it might be hard to tell.

Even though Dodd gives up five or six inches to most of the Irish defensive linemen, the QB isn't concerned about getting his passes off.

"It can be tough (throwing against taller d-linemen), but I've played against linemen that size," Dodd said. "It's a matter of being able to find your holes and knowing your reads. As long as we do a good job in protection, which I think we will, if we execute we should be good."

"People think about seeing over the line," said Rutgers offensive coordinator Ron Prince. "I don't think that's what (a quarterback does). You see through the lanes. There's a natural distribution to how people rush and there are passing lanes. Those passing lanes aren't just downfield. They're in the pocket as well.

"One thing Notre Dame does really well, their defensive front people really understand how to constrict those lanes."

"Chas is a pretty accurate passer and he's got a strong arm," Cooks said. "He's a capable runner. They haven't used him the last two games as a zone-read runner, but he can hurt you with his feet.

"We're always talking to our guys about having their hands up. Any time you can get a presence in that throwing lane, you've got an opportunity."

And Saturday's game is all about opportunities — for several players.

Expect to see more of Notre Dame's Max Redfield in Saturday's bowl game. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN