Notebook: Max Redfield shuffles back into mix for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly is still shuffling options in Notre Dame’s secondary, with a new style of offense and a fresh crisis with which to deal this week.

The known in the largely gray area, as No. 6 Notre Dame (3-0) preps for Saturday’s matchup with visiting UMass (0-2), is that Irish free safety Max Redfield has re-emerged as a starter after a week off.

The Notre Dame head football coach sat Redfield for the Georgia Tech game last Saturday, in part because the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option scheme didn’t necessarily play to his strengths and in part because the junior struggled playing with a cast on his right hand Sept. 12 against Virginia, after breaking his thumb against Texas the previous week.

Redfield, Kelly said, now feels that he’s made the adjustment to playing with the soft cast.

“We’ll test him a little bit this week (in practice),” Kelly said. “We’ll make sure that he tackles. But all indications are that he’s going to be able to play at the level that he played with at Texas and (that) he did at the end of last year.

“So if he does, we’re a pretty good football team with him back there.”

The unknown is who replaces sophomore safety Drue Tranquill, out for the season after suffering an ACL tear Saturday, in ND’s niche pass-defense packages.

And given UMass’ propensity to pass often (No. 19 nationally in pass offense, No. 121 in rush offense), those niche packages could actually be ND’s de facto base defense Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kelly volunteered that 5-foot-11, 200-pound freshman Mykelti Williams will get a look this week. He’s up from the scout team after starting the season on a trajectory to redshirt. But the coach didn’t get overly detailed.

The trick in replacing Tranquill is the blend of his size (6-2, 225), speed and versatility — with the ability to play in coverage, slide up into the box as a quasi-linebacker or rush the passer.

“Some of what we show on Saturday will be the first time you see it,” Kelly said when pressed about what Plan B looks like.

Senior Nicky Baratti is listed as starting strong safety Elijah Shumate’s primary backup in ND’s base defense, as Tranquill had been. The 6-1, 210-pounder showed promise as a true freshman with eight tackles and an interception in spot duty during the 2012 season.

However, he’s had three tackles combined in the three seasons since then, with multiple injuries limiting his opportunities.

“It’s been a slow, long process,” Kelly said of Baratti’s climb back into relevance. “He’s done well on special teams for us. We’re feeling like he’s gaining some more confidence each day in his ability to go out there and compete.

“But we still know that he’s had major surgery on both shoulders. (There was a time) when there was some doubt as to whether he could come back. So we still have to be prepared at that position. We have to have some depth there. So that’s why Mykelti is going to get some work.”

Getting up to speed

KeiVarae Russell’s skill set and potential still have pro scouts gaping.

That’s not to say the Irish senior cornerback, out last season because of an academic-related suspension, is without growing pains in his present.

“I think it’s still evolving,” Kelly said of Russell’s game. “He plays with such great energy and passion. He is fully engaged. But … he doesn’t have a reservoir of games in the sense that he doesn’t have a big bank of knowledge at his position. So he’s still learning quite a bit out there.”

Russell’s first two seasons as a corner for Notre Dame involved a lot of zone coverage and didn’t require a lot of pre-snap calculations or offensive formation recognition on his part.

His first game under second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, with much more man defense and press coverage mixed in, was the Texas game on Sept. 5. Russell stands fourth on the team with 15 tackles. He also has a sack, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.

“I think he’s only going to get better each week,” Kelly said, “but still in that process of learning technique, learning splits, learning alignments, learning things of that nature.

“I don’t think we are at the point where we would talk about rust anymore. I think we are really simply talking about him continuing to learn the position and gain more knowledge every day.”

Depth’s hidden side

Quarterback DeShone Kizer, running back C.J. Prosise and the Jerry Tillery-Daniel Cage tag team at nose guard are examples of Kelly flexing his program depth in the face of season-ending injuries.

But there are more players Kelly considers incubating future stars who are still playing the waiting game because of the star power ahead of them on the depth chart.

That includes offensive lineman Alex Bars, defensive end Doug Randolph, slot receiver Torii Hunter and freshman wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, the latter who has played in just one of the three ND games so far and is still looking for his first collegiate catch after an eye-opening training camp.

“Will Fuller is one of the best, if not the best receiver, at his position in the country,” Kelly said of the man ahead of St. Brown on the depth chart.

“How do you take him off the field to put ‘EQ’ in there? I mean, I’d need my head examined. But EQ is an outstanding football player, and I could match him up with so many players in the country. So if I had to play with him, people would say, ‘Wow, that’s a really, really good football player.’ “

Squibs

In the first game without starting tight end Durham Smythe, Notre Dame got a combined four catches from the four mix-and-match replacements — three coming from freshman Alizé Jones in his first college start and one from redshirt freshman Nick Weishar.

Only five times in the previous 28 games, dating back to the 2012 season and All-American Tyler Eifert’s final game in an Irish uniform, did Kelly get more catches from his tight end corps in a game.

But Kelly also saw a plethora of errors Saturday against Georgia Tech, including a lost fumble after one of Jones’ catches.

“We think that they are all going to be really good players,” Kelly said of the corps that includes strong blockers Tyler Luatua and Chase Hounshell. “We are living right now with some mistakes.

“As long as we coach it and teach it and get better week to week, we should be really good at the position. But it hurt us at certain times in the game that we had some young guys out there making some mistakes.”

• Notre Dame has rushed for 200 yards or more in its first three games of a season for the first time since 1996, when Lou Holtz was in his final season as head coach and current Irish running backs coach Autry Denson was a sophomore running back on his way to becoming ND’s all-time leading career rusher.

The 1996 Irish did not reach the 200-yard mark in game No. 4 of that year, a 29-16 loss to Ohio State.

• Tom Hammond will pinch-hit for Dan Hicks and will handle play-by-play duties on NBC for Saturday’s ND-UMass game. Hicks will be handling golf coverage this week, specifically the FedEx Cup Playoff Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Safety Max Redfield (10) is finally finding a comfort level playing with a cast on his right hand and is expected to rejoin the starting lineup for Notre Dame on Saturday. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)