Safety Max Redfield finding his voice for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CULVER, Ind. — He hasn’t yet learned to drown out Brian VanGorder in practice, if that’s even possible.

But Notre Dame junior safety Max Redfield has finally found his voice, along with the conviction to push the buttons of others around him, to the point of being VanGorder-ishly caustic if it comes to that.

“Last year, I was a sophomore, so I felt like it wasn’t my place to have that kind of role,” Redfield said Friday after the Irish football team completed the first practice of the preseason, and the first of five at their temporary off-campus home on the campus of Culver Military Academy.

“We had a lot of seniors who were strong leaders but weren’t as vocal as they should have been. Everyone needs to be a leader and call everybody out on something that’s not up to the standard coach (Brian) Kelly wants.”

The first person’s face the Mission Viejo, Calif., product got into this offseason as he transformed from enigma to reborn phenom was his own.

There wasn’t a singular moment, he said, when his celebrated potential finally synched up with what was happening on the practice field for the former five-star prospect the Irish poached out of USC’s recruiting class three cycles ago.

It was more like incremental revelations, that Redfield kept building upon, and still is. They started with finally wrapping his head around the trigonometric-like scheme of his defensive coordinator, VanGorder.

Then he had to digest who VanGorder was himself.

“You kind of got the feeling he’s not the easiest guy to warm up to,” Redfield said with a big smile. “He’s all business. He’s from the NFL. He wants his things down his way, and that’s the right way.

“We understand that now and we have a year in the system. We feel a lot more comfortable, and he feels much more comfortable with us, because we know the defense better, and it’s great.”

Redfield knows it well enough that he can do what only middle linebacker Joe Schmidt could do last year — help move the other pieces around pre-snap to adjust to tweaks on the other side of the ball.

“That’s how VanGorder teachers the defense,” Redfield said. “All of our meetings are with the whole unit, as an entire defense. When he talks to the D-line, we’re hearing it. We need to know some of the D-line’s concepts.

“When he talks to the linebackers, he wants us engaged in what he’s telling them, so we know. Obviously, being on that same page and knowing the whole scheme is making our defense much more fluid and more easy to be successful.”

And a big part of Notre Dame’s ambitious preseason rankings, including a No. 11 spot in the coaches poll and a No. 4 nod from Sports Illustrated, is not only the notion that the injury-diluted 2014 defense —which ranked 71st — nationally is healthy but also dramatically improved.

Redfield, staying on the transformative arc that became apparent last spring, is one of the reasons for that kind of optimism.

Redfield’s sophomore numbers on the surface were respectable. His 68 tackles, 14 of which came in the bowl win over LSU after a late-season demotion, ranked second on the team to linebacker Jaylon Smith’s 112.

But what didn’t show up in his stat line were mistakes that turned into long gains and touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder also had to learn the hard way that a strong drive isn’t enough. Sometimes better balance is the key.

When Redfield enrolled in June of 2013, he not only aspired to play safety and wide receiver, he expected it. And he was bent on graduating in three years, taking an overload of 18 semester credit hours each fall and spring through his first two academic years.

It caught up to him this past spring when the quantity of classes tainted the quality of his results. A chance to study abroad in Greece in May had to be scrapped so that Redfield could regain his footing this summer.

He did that and more, fashioning a GPA in the 3.5 neighborhood.

“Max Redfield and his maturity and the way he's really come into his own has been really something to see,” Kelly said. “In just the last few days we've had some leadership development, and he's really taken that step that we were looking for.

“So having somebody that is an outstanding athlete, now bringing the other part with him, is going to be a great strength for us as well on the back end of our defense.”

A back end that has regained cornerback KeiVarae Russell from academic exile, to go along with another reborn safety, Elijah Shumate, and an ascending cornerback in junior Cole Luke.

“Obviously he’s an incredible player,” Redfield said of Russell after the latter’s first practice with the Irish since last Aug. 14. “The confidence he has is unmatched. His skill set is very, very unique.

“He’s an incredible athlete and he’s a very intelligent person as well. When you can put someone on any receiver in the country and know that he can guard him, that’s a great person to have.

“He was an incredible athlete then and he took it upon himself to train as much as he could when he was away, it wasn’t like it was time off for him at all. It was just time away.”

And suddenly outsiders are starting to talk about Redfield in the same glowing terms. Phil Steele’s preview magazine, for instance, listed Redfield as a preseason first-team All-American.

“With the season I had last year, I didn’t feel deserving,” he said of the accolade. “But I feel like I’m definitely that kind of player, and I want to prove that every day in practice. I’m just happy to be on the radar.”

Practice rewind

• Middle linebacker Jarrett Grace, a player to watch this month as he pushes for a prominent role on the defense after almost two years on the comeback trail, was unwatchable Friday.

The grad student missed Friday’s practice at Culver to finish up some work on his MBA back on the Notre Dame campus. He was expected to join the team Friday night.

• It’s far from a finished product, more like a starting point. But here’s how the No. 1 and 2 offenses and defenses lined up in practice No. 1 on Friday:

First-team offense: Quarterback Malik Zaire; running backs Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise (splitting reps); wide receivers Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle; tight end Durham Smythe, offensive linemen (left to right) Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey.

Second-team offense: Quarterback DeShone Kizer; running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams (splitting reps); wide receivers Corey Robinson, Corey Holmes and Torii Hunter Jr.; tight end Tyler Luatua, offensive linemen (left to right) Hunter Bivin, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher, John Montelus, Mark Harrell.

First-team defense: Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell; defensive tackle Sheldon Day; nose guard Jarron Jones; linebackers Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and James Onwualu; cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke; safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.

Second-team defense: Defensive end: Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship; defensive tackle Jay Hayes; nose guard Jerry Tillery; linebackers Nyles Morgan, Te’von Coney and Greer Martini; safeties Matthias Farley and Drue Tranquill/Avery Sebastian (splitting reps); cornerbacks Devin Butler and Nick Watkins.

• The brightest spotlight Friday was on junior quarterback Malik Zaire, the clear No. 1 at quarterback for the first time in his career.

Zaire looked jittery early, and misfired on several deep pass attempts, but found rhythm and consistency as practice progressed.

“He’s got real good management skills, communicates effectively,” Kelly said. “You could see for a first day there’s not a lot of sloppiness from an offensive standpoint in terms of false starts and things of that nature.

“He’s got a good command, a good presence. I think it’s probably what I thought it would be on the first day with him.”

• The wide receivers and defensive backs were the freshmen who caught Kelly’s eye on Friday. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, competing with redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer for the No. 2 spot, did too, though some of it was because of what he needs to work on.

“He’s got a strong arm,” Kelly said. “He tries to overpower a lot of the stuff. He’s using some footwork that doesn’t synch up to some of the things we’re doing, so we’ll work on some of those things.

“But he’s so bright, wide-eyed, extremely coachable, and that’s the great thing about it. He’s going to pick up everything very, very fast here. Very live arm here, as you can see, so he’s going to be able to make all the throws.

“We’re going to have to catch up his footwork. I think once we do that, I think a lot of the stuff is going to come to him quickly.”

Jhonny Williams finds a home

Former Notre Dame defensive end Jhonny Williams has transferred to Toledo.

The sophomore from Benton Harbor, Mich., announced he was leaving the Irish in June. He confirmed his transfer destination with ND Insider in a text message on Friday.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Williams was once verbally committed to Toledo early in his recruiting process. He also committed to Missouri as a senior at Berrien Springs High School before enrolling at Notre Dame last June.

Williams, a former three-star recruit, did not see the field in his one season with the Irish.

When asked in June why he was transferring from Notre Dame, Williams said via text message, "Great school, great place, just not the right fit."

Staff Writer Tyler James contributed to this report.

Notre Dame safety Max Redfield, here running a drill during practice at the Culver Academies on Friday, continues to build on a transformative spring. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)