Notre Dame S Max Redfield applies lessons to step up game

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Catch Brian Kelly in just the right mood and it could make for an interesting experience.

The Notre Dame football coach can wear his emotions on his sleeves, unplugging the filter that converts everything into coachspeak.

Kelly had just gotten his team through a grueling camp and, late last week, was beginning to make specific preparations for Texas.

While meeting the media, Kelly stood at the podium, wiped some frustration from his face, and talked about the Irish defense. He said practice finally got to the point where there were “nine players and two orange cones (where the safeties should be).”

And, he had half a mind to start those two orange cones Saturday against the Longhorns.

That didn’t bode well for Max Redfield or Elijah Shumate.

During his career at Notre Dame, Redfield – a 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior – has seen the inside of so many doghouses that losing his spot, even momentarily, to an orange cone didn’t cause him to panic.

He’s learned not to bark. Just look for the right time to bite.

In fact, trained like the elite defensive back that he is, Redfield’s penchant for a short memory kicked in. A few days later, he didn’t even recall the circumstances that led to his banishment.

“There must have been a few mental errors that day,” said Redfield. “You can’t have any of those errors when you’re playing safety. That has to be the most consistent position and the most fluid in terms of communication.”

Redfield’s path to fluidity has been disjointed.

Freshman year, for some reason, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco didn’t buy in to having a freshman – albeit a physically gifted one – as the last line of defense. That limited Redfield’s contributions primarily to special teams. He finished with 12 tackles that season.

As soon as Diaco left to be head coach at Connecticut, Redfield got his chance. He started the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers.

He started the first nine games of last season, then got shoved into the doghouse again for losses against Northwestern and Louisville. Redfield came back to start the last two games, finishing with 68 tackles and an interception against Michigan.

“You can find a lesson in almost anything,” Redfield said. “It’s finding out what parts of your game are strong; then figuring out what parts of your game are weak; then improving them as much as you can.

“You have to have a sound game and play consistently as best you can.

“The game now is exponentially slower than it was when I was a freshman. When I was younger, I was just trying to survive. Now, I’m trying to thrive and be perfect.

“Anything less than perfection, to me, is not (accepted). It’s frowned upon. (Defensive teammates) expect me to play at a high level.”

As Kelly repeatedly said through the tough times last year, communication issues usually were the problems that plagued Redfield, Shumate and anyone else who happened to play safety. All that comes with learning defense the Brian VanGorder way, while at the same time trying to relax and play fast. It’s not always as easy as it sounds.

“I have a lot better picture of situational football,” Redfield said. “(Defensive coordinator VanGorder) harps on that a lot. He wants his safeties to be in tune with that.

“It helps us play faster, play without thinking. You have so much muscle memory. You’re so comfortable with your job, you don’t have to think about doing your job every time. That’s the way you can play fast and make plays.”

It appears that Kelly, looking at the big picture, has noticed. As of earlier this week, the head coach has given up on the notion of using the orange cones, and even injected a measure of confidence in Redfield’s direction.

“Very, very solid play in all facets: Leadership, communication, tackling, playing the ball in the air,” was the way Kelly evaluated Redfield. “He's had a really good camp. He's a different player than last year; a much more mature player. He's much more mature in everything that he does on a day-to-day basis. That just has carried on to what he does on the football field. Feel really good about Max Redfield as one of our safeties, no question.”

Redfield will play a significant role against the Longhorns – both as a run-stopper and pass defender. Once North Carolina exposed the Notre Dame defense’s inability to deal with an uptempo attack, the move was copied by just about every team on the Irish schedule.

Guess what? Notre Dame is prepping for more of the same from Texas – at least until the Irish show they can deal with it. A Longhorn offense that struggled last season (110th in the country) and has two true freshmen starting on the offensive line, will likely try to gain an edge by spreading the field and playing fast.

Though nobody knows for sure.

“You can’t prepare for something you don’t know,” Redfield said. “We watched the film tediously from last year, trying to imagine what strengths they’re going to play to. They’ve got a quarterback who has good intangibles (Tyrone Swoopes) and a solid running back (Jonathan Gray).

“We have to picture what game plan they’re going to run against us, and that’s what we prepare for. It’s just holding up conceptually within our defense, no matter what they throw at us. If we’re sound and all on the same page, it doesn’t matter what they do.

“They’ll do a lot of tempo. Tempo killed us last year. It’s been a huge point (of emphasis) this year. You run a lot of base defense, nothing elaborate. You have to get set and have everyone on the same page (to solve tempo).”

Let’s see an orange cone try to do that.

Notre Dame's Max Redfield (10) runs the ball during the Blue-Gold Game Saturday April 18, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ