Notre Dame safety Max Redfield makes his case for consistency
SOUTH BEND — From the outside looking in, the view of the evolution of safety Max Redfield looks much the same as it does from Brian Kelly’s vantage point.
Through the rough edges of his growth that the Notre Dame junior seems reluctant to visit or even acknowledge exist, the talent base and tantalizing possibilities still are what drives the overriding impression.
Yet the lone five-star defensive back prospect that Notre Dame has signed in the 2000s, and one poached late out of USC’s 2013 recruiting class at that, is sort of a microcosm of the skill-laden Irish secondary and, for that matter, the ND defense overall five games into the 2015 season.
The whole still doesn’t exceed the sum of the parts.
Not consistently. Not in its bottom line — 34th nationally in total defense, 42nd against the pass, 59th versus the run, with the nation’s No. 3 rushing team, Navy (4-0), coming to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
At least this time Redfield is expected to take the field for the 15th-ranked Irish (4-1) against college football’s Rubik’s Cube, the triple-option offense. He was a bystander three weeks ago, when Notre Dame defused Georgia Tech’s version of it for 59 of the game’s first 60 minutes.
“I was participating in practice all week,” Redfield said of the benching that he said he never saw coming against the Yellow Jackets.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly attributed the temporary demotion partially to scheme fit and partially to Redfield’s initial struggles with playing with a cast on his right hand protecting a broken thumb, suffered on the first series of ND’s first game of the season, Sept. 5 vs. Texas.
Redfield’s role and that of fellow safety Elijah Shumate’s Saturday, though, are the toughest jobs on the defense this week, Kelly said, “because they’re put in conflict.”
“I’m as confident as I felt last year (against Navy),” Redfield said matter-of-factly.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder had seven tackles in the 49-39 Irish survival of the Mids last season, and two in a reserve role as a freshman in another frantic finish with ND prevailing.
Kelly said Redfield played the best game of his ND career to date last Saturday in a 24-22 loss at Clemson. But he has to radically shift gears this week for a Navy offense that has attempted fewer passes this season (28) than USC’s Cody Kessler flung Thursday night alone in a 17-12 upset home loss to Washington.
The Trojans, and the nation’s 17th-most prolific and fifth-most efficient pass offense, come to Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 17, providing another schematic jolt.
“For a safety, it’s easier coming out of a triple-option week than going in,” Redfield said.
The more pressing question is why hasn’t the Mission Viejo, Calif., product’s overall collegiate experience been easier, or at least less turbulent?
There have been injuries. The broken thumb, Redfield said, was much easier to cope with after his first game in the cast, against Virginia on Sept. 12.
And he recovered from broken ribs suffered in last season’s regular-season finale Nov. 29 at USC well enough to concoct a breakout performance in the 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU.
But consistency, the very quality the Irish coaches covet most, has been somewhat elusive.
“He’s somebody that I think is looking at football now through a different lens and understands how there are so many details to it,” Kelly said.
“Maybe there was a bit of, ‘Hey, I can rely on my athletic ability through high school. And now I get to this level and there’s a little bit more to it.’ I think that that’s a realization that he’s had.
“He wants to play at the highest level. He wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. So he’s really just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.
“I’ve seen it with different kids. It just comes on a little bit different at different times. He has a lot of different interests. He’s very inquisitive. He’s very smart. And I just think the football stuff is starting to sink in, and he’s starting to pick up a lot of the nuances.”
How that looks from the NFL perspective is that senior Elijah Shumate projects as the most finished product among the two starting safeties and two starting Irish cornerbacks, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke.
Shumate is the only one of the four that made Bleacher Report lead NFL writer Matt Miller’s top 10 draft prospects at their respective positions in Miller’s latest rankings.
None of them made the overall top 100, a list that includes six of their Irish teammates (No. 2 Jaylon Smith, No. 4 Ronnie Stanley, No 42 Will Fuller, No. 52 Sheldon Day, No. 63 C.J. Prosise and No. 83 Nick Martin).
“Their defense is NFL, what they ask those guys to do,” Miller said. “Redfield, his strength is in coverage, not playing the run. He’s not a real big guy. I think that’s probably the biggest question with him, is he aggressive enough against the run?
“I know he’ll have a lot of tackles. That would be the only argument, that he’s productive. But coming up to fill a gap, I would say his run sets aren’t great. But he’s a pretty special athlete in coverage, and playing free safety, that’s what the NFL is all about.”
Yet he’s one Miller said would benefit greatly by returning to Notre Dame in 2016 for his senior season.
“You talk about Sheldon Day coming back (for 2015), I think Max Redfield is further behind where Day was at this point last year,” Miller said. “If I remember correctly, he’s barely been targeted this year. So he does a great job of eliminating targets as well as coming off his guy to make a tackle in the open field.
“I definitely think (Redfield) would be draft-worthy, but hopefully he would come back for another year and try to get to that tier where you talk about the best free safeties in the country — Jayron Kearse (Clemson) and Darian Thompson (Boise State). You want to get him in that conversation before you start talking about leaving early.”
The same would hold true, Miller says, for Russell, who has a fifth-year option to return in 2015. He is still held in high regard by pro scouts, but his current snapshot doesn’t match his potential.
“I see rust,” Miller said of Russell, who missed all of last season while on academic-related suspension. “The Virginia game especially, you could see the miscommunications happening. It’s hard for any of us to know, did the safety make a mistake? Did Russell make a mistake?
“I see a guy who has all the gifts to be a great lockdown, man corner, but right now there are too many times that he is undisciplined. That can work for some guys, because you’re jumping routes and you’re taking that gamble.
“But when you’re giving up eight catches for 120 yards against Virginia, Virginia is not loaded with draft prospects, so that’s a pretty big concern when something like that happens. He has the height, weight, speed. They’re all there for him.
“Sitting out for a year is really hard for anyone, but sitting out and changing schemes is even tougher.”
And yet Miller sees too much talent on the Notre Dame defense, particularly in its secondary for the issues to linger.
Redfield sees it that way too, and feels first-year defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, is a key to making sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s just some of the little things you wouldn’t generally get from a coach,” Redfield said. “Little tips and hints to just kind of be mindful of during the game on a play-by-play basis that can just kind of take your game to the next level.
“If you’re asking me if I’m not playing my best when I want to, I guess that’s pretty frustrating. But I feel like I’m getting there.”