Better recognition leads Notre Dame's Elijah Shumate to success

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

If the game had been played last year, Elijah Shumate may not have been there.

“There,” to be specific, is the Texas 28-yard line, with 14 minutes and 30 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s season-opening 38-3 statement win. The 6-foot, 224-pound senior strong safety wasn’t there by accident, after recognizing a Longhorn play that was about to be recycled for the second time that night. Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes took a shotgun snap, looked to his left and fired a screen pass to the boundary and wide receiver Daje Johnson.

Swoopes didn’t expect Johnson to have company.

Unfortunately for the Longhorns, he was wrong.

“Earlier in the game they tried to do the same thing but we were in a different coverage,” Shumate said. “He thought there wasn’t going to be anybody out there. He threw it and I just attacked.”

The attack, for Shumate, has always been the easy part. It’s why the physical New Jersey native was ranked as one of the top 10 safety prospects nationally by Rivals, 247Sports, Scout and CBS Sports Network coming out of powerhouse Don Bosco Prep High School in 2012. As long as he puts himself in position to make plays, Shumate has the physical ability to close on any ball carrier, at any time.

His play last weekend, in which Shumate planted Johnson for a three-yard loss, is proof of that.

But a season ago, with Shumate’s decisiveness clouded by the chaotic details of first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s complicated scheme, that play may not have been possible. Shumate may not have recognized Texas’ formation, or understood his assignment within Notre Dame’s defensive system.

Confusion hampered his ability to attack.

“Last year, we had to grow as players,” Shumate said. “Just watching a lot of film, locking into our keys and knowing exactly our assignments, that helped us out.”

Shumate’s individual growth is apparent through more than that specific play, or a stat line that included four tackles and select few mental mistakes. His teammates recognize it in his demeanor, a product of tireless effort to master the minutiae of VanGorder’s defensive scheme.

“He was more confident. That’s what it starts with,” junior linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “When you’ve been playing the game since you were seven years old and you don’t have any confidence, you’re pretty much screwed. What we’ve seen from Elijah is him having a better understanding of the system, the scheme and improving his overall football IQ.

“That’s something that we need, especially in our secondary.”

That secondary was virtually unrecognizable last weekend, despite being loaded with returning talent. Safeties Shumate and Max Redfield are both back for the 2015 season, and cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke tout significant experience on both sides of the field.

While the names haven’t changed, their voices are finally starting to register.

“There was really good communication,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of his secondary. “We’ve got to get a little better with the corners. Sometimes we got into a couple of situations where we lost a little bit of communication with our corners here and there. But so much better (than last season).

“I mean, really, we were able to do a lot of things. As I said, we were set in a lot of different looks during tempo that we weren’t able to do last year. So we were very pleased at the end of the day where we were after this game.”

That progression may be most evident in Shumate, who has evolved from the player who was benched late last season during the Notre Dame defense’s catastrophic nosedive. Gone, at least so far, are the coverage breakdowns, the misunderstandings, the growing pains that torpedoed what was once a promising start.

A new season brings a new safety.

“He’s one of my best friends and also he’s grown up a lot in the game and understands it a lot more,” graduate student defensive back Matthias Farley said. “I think he’s had ups and downs and he’s gotten some pressure, and he’s used that and become an incredible football player.

“He’s working on his own, like I’ll walk by and he’ll be in there watching film or asking questions or doing something to better himself.”

Last weekend, better was on display. Better recognition. Better communication.

And because of it, more opportunities to attack.

“I knew if everybody was locked in and detailed, we would play a good game,” Shumate said. “We can’t beat ourselves. If everybody is doing their job, I feel like we can do whatever we want to do.”

Notre Dame’s Elijah Shumate (22) brings down Texas’s Tyrone Swoopes (18) during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)