Numbers back up progress Notre Dame defense has made

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Game’s the same, just looks a whole lot different from Elijah Shumate’s perspective.

Offenses make more sense. Adjustments happen for a reason. Reactions are now instincts.

And that’s just one of 11 reasons why the Notre Dame football team’s defense has made strides this season.

Shumate, a 6-foot, 224-pound senior safety for the Irish, has been a big part of the growth process that second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has put his unit through. A starter in 10 games last season, Shumate was third on the team with 66 tackles. He also had an interception.

That foundation has been critical for the progress Shumate has made this season as a vital component of the Irish secondary with 25 tackles, again, third on the team.

“I’m starting to see tendencies,” Shumate said of his development. “I’m starting to know exactly what the offense is going to do in certain situations. It helps me out to be able to make a play.

“I’m able to read different keys that I wouldn’t normally be able to read. It’s a lot of little stuff, detailed stuff, that’s helping my game out.

“I’m a lot more confident in myself than I was last year.”

Confidence, up and down the depth chart, has been a big reason why the numbers are better than last year, heading into Saturday night’s game at Clemson.

Besides four victories, one of the true indicators of a defense’s success is its ability to get off the field on third down.

Last year, Notre Dame opponents were successful on 41 percent (79 of 192) of third-down conversion attempts. This year, that stat has been trimmed to 28 percent (16 of 58, ranking 21st in the country).

“A lot of film study,” was what Shumate credited for the improvement. “We get to know what teams like to do on third down, in certain down-and-distance situations. We try to anticipate, just play our responsibilities.”

“We understand that it’s an important down; getting off the field and giving our offense possession,” said Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith. “It’s something we’re really locked into. We’ve had some success so far, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

Third down is the “money down” that goes a long way toward deciding between victory and defeat.

It’s something the Irish will have to control Saturday night. Clemson, with big-time quarterback Deshaun Watson — a guy Irish coach Brian Kelly called a “game-wrecker” — under center, has converted on 43 percent of its third-down situations in victories over Wofford, Appalachian State and Louisville.

Not necessarily Murderer’s Row. How that translates into a matchup with the Irish will be interesting.

“When we talk about Clemson, certainly, a quarterback that is multi-dimensional in Deshaun Watson, athletic, can throw it,” Kelly said. “Really surrounded with some playmakers.”

“(Watson is) a playmaker,” said Smith. “We have to do a good job to make sure we stop him.”

“His mobility (makes him special),” Shumate said of Watson. “They run a good offense. They’re going to be a challenge. We’ll be ready.

“On film, (Watson) likes to be a pocket quarterback, but he has that intangible to run (23 carries, 93 yards). He wants to be a quarterback, so he wants to stay in the pocket.

“He has a strong arm and he’s a smart quarterback. He likes to get his players out in space, and he knows his matchups.”

“(Watson’s) a true dual-threat quarterback,” said Notre Dame safety Matthias Farley. “He has a great arm, accurate passes. Puts the ball where his receivers can get to it and gives his receivers opportunities to go make plays. And then also, he will stand in the pocket. It's not like he's going to look to run and just get out of there at the first sign of pressure. He's going to stay poised, and he's a very calm quarterback, which I think, you know, manifests itself in the way he plays and also the way his teammates respond to him.”

Watson, whose season ended a month early last year after an ACL injury, has completed 58 of 73 passes for 641 yards and seven touchdowns. He has been intercepted three times. Notre Dame has just one interception in 133 opponent passes this season.

Clemson ranks 45th in the country in passing yards with 762 in three games. The Tigers are 28th in passing efficiency, and that’s without top receiver Mike Williams who was injured in the opener against Wofford. While going after a ball in the end zone, Williams had a collision with the goal post. He suffered a cracked bone in his neck and may miss most, if not all, of this season.

The Irish are allowing 203.8 passing yards a game, which ranks 55th in the country. That’s nearly 30 fewer yards a game than last season.

“We’ve gotten everything together,” said Shumate. “We’ve come together as one. We’ve worked really hard for the past few years to get to the level of play we want to be at. We’re still not there yet. Our focus is to play together, play within each other.”

Understanding the defensive concept and being comfortable with each other has allowed Irish defenders to be confident enough to freelance a bit. When a play goes sour, sometimes adjustments have to be made on the fly.

“We’re a work in progress,” Shumate said of his unit. “Every day, every game, we’re improving.

“If (coaches) give us a call, and things don’t happen right, we know what to do. Last year, if we got the call, we did it. This year, we’ve gotten to the point (where we can adjust).

“It’s been a tough transition (in the secondary the first four games). Coaches are pushing us really hard. We use that as motivation.

“We want it really bad. This team is special. We’ve worked really hard.”

Besides Watson (6-2, 210), the Tigers have big-time weapons in 6-1, 215-pound running back Wayne Gallman (53 carries, 310 yards, 3 TDs) and receivers Artavis Scott (5-11, 190; 20 receptions, 188 yards, 2 TDs) and Ray-Ray McCloud (5-10, 180; 13, 113).

“They’re fast, they’re big-play guys who run good routes,” Shumate said, evaluating the Clemson receivers. “They’re big-time players. We can’t take a step back. We’ve gotta be on our stuff.

“You can’t simulate exactly how it’s going to be. We’ve been watching a lot of film.”

Kelly cautioned not to make too much of his defense’s first-half frustration during the rout of UMass last week. The coach pointed out that a 56-yard pass play and 83-yard run were both gadget plays that caught the Irish off guard, so he wasn’t too concerned with the overall performance.

“If you look at -- we kept UMass scoreless for over 31 minutes,” Kelly said. “A couple of plays that we didn't fit right, two-back lead draw; don't know that our defense has seen two-back lead draw since they've come to camp. It doesn't mean we can't defend it. We should have defended it. That's unacceptable. That's one thing. Then obviously the gadget play (a reverse pass).

“Those two big plays right there resulted in about 35 percent of their offense. The other plays, you know we're competing at a pretty good level.”

“As a secondary player, you have to put (a gadget) play behind you,” Shumate said. “Always focus on the next play. Leave the other play behind, it’s in the past, you can’t do anything about it.

“(The trick plays) are tough. You can be focused and locked in on your keys, you have to know the situation and what could happen. It’s football savvy.

“You see a guy who should be run-blocking running super fast down the field, you know something’s going on. You have to be able to see everything.”

That’s just part of the deal in the Notre Dame secondary these days.

Seeing is believing.

The Irish just seem to be seeing so much better now.

The numbers back it up.

Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith (9), James Onwualu (17) and Elijah Shumate (22) take down University of Massachusetts' Jamal Wilson(6) during the second quarter against the University of Massachusetts, Saturday, September 26, 2015 in South Bend. SBT Photo/ Becky Malewitz