Notre Dame's secondary needs to meet gold standard

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a gold standard by which everything in the Notre Dame football program is judged.

“Is to good enough to win a championship?”

Whether it’s the quarterback position, offensive line, defensive front … whatever.

Maybe it’s good enough to win a game, but… “Can it win a championship?”

That’s the dilemma facing the Irish secondary right now. Three wins away from an opportunity to be considered as part of the championship process, Notre Dame’s corners and safeties have yet to prove themselves as an elite unit.

Continuity and consistency have been missing components.

A strong start (yielding 103 passing yards) against Texas, was followed by disappointment (289 yards) against Virginia. Georgia Tech’s option attack (which threw for 121 yards) was followed by UMass (302 yards).

Clemson managed to throw for just 84, then Navy, which doesn’t throw the football forward very often, had 22. Along came Southern Cal, which threw for 440. Then, Temple had 188 passing yards and Pitt 223.

There’s no rhythm to that rollercoaster.

Saturday’s final home game against Wake Forest is an opportunity to solve the puzzle and put on a championship-caliber performance. The Demon Deacons are a pass-heavy team, averaging more than twice the yardage through the air (229.9) as on the ground (110).

Probably the position experiencing the most turmoil is safety. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has used different combinations of Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield and Matthias Farley to try to fit specific individual strengths to what the opposing offenses like to do.

There has yet to be a definitive answer.

“(We’re) looking for more consistency at that (safety) position,” Kelly said. “We get good play, and then we miss a play or two. For example, the jet sweep (against Pitt) where our safety really should be standing at the line of scrimmage on that play, we're not. The third-down pass to the tight end in the third quarter, our safeties should be all over it. (Inexplicably), we're not. Yet we're making six, seven plays somewhere else where our safeties are in great position.

“What we talked about is just, ‘Trust us (coaches). Trust your keys. Trust what we're telling you to do.’ If it's a round peg, let's put it in the round hole. Let's not try to do more than that. That's really where we've taken this is that, ‘Let's just pay attention to what we're coaching you to do, and if we do that, we'll be in pretty good shape.’

“We're doing some good things and we want to do better at that position.”

“It’s just a focus on each and every play,” said Farley, citing the problems the Irish secondary has encountered with inconsistency. “You can’t give up the explosive plays. It comes down to each play, then re-setting. Taking it one play at a time, not harping on the play before or guessing what the next play might be.”

“Recognizing what we have to do better (is the first step toward improvement),” said Shumate. “(Then, it’s) working on our mistakes and building on it; not making those mistakes again.

“We have a lot of talent on defense. We’re excited about that, but we’ve got a lot to work on; a lot of things can still get better. Our goal and mission is to stay healthy, work together, push each other, and try to be the best we can be.”

One of the areas of concern has been in creating turnovers. Corner KeiVarae Russell didn’t come up with his first interception of the season until a dramatic game-clincher against Southern Cal. He followed that with another athletic pick that sealed the victory over Temple.

This season, Notre Dame has just seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

Shumate, who will be playing in his final home game Saturday, knows what (an almost) championship defense looks like. He was a nickel back as a freshman in 2012 when the Irish went 12-0 before falling to Alabama in the title game.

“(In 2012), I was just trying to get out there on the field,” Shumate said. “I was young. I really didn’t know much. I was just watching how the upperclassmen and the seniors took everything so seriously the whole season. How (linebacker) Manti (Te’o) led the team. (Running backs) Cierre (Wood) and Theo (Riddick) on offense were vocal.

“I see the same thing on this team: Players serious about it. We’re definitely going to make a run and show the world this is what we’re supposed to do.”

Yeah, but… which team was better, this year or 2012?

“Both teams are good, but this team is awfully hard to compete with,” Shumate said. “(The 2012 run) gives us a sense of direction. It gives us a sense of how things are going to happen.

“Things happened in creepy ways. There were a bunch of games we thought we could have lost, but ended up winning. You never know how things are going to go. You have to be focused. Play hard every down and good things will happen.”

This week, for instance… Wake Forest should have no business hanging with the Irish. Las Vegas says Notre Dame should win by four touchdowns. But, then again…

“(The Wake Forest penchant for passing) gives us a chance to show the world what we can do,” said Shumate, who is hoping to avoid “creepy” the rest of the season. “We’ve always been labeled as the position that has been lacking in the defense. It gives us a test this week. We’re up to the challenge. We want to show the world we’re a dominant defense all around.”

Besides the safeties, the corners have battled their own spurts of inconsistency.

“It's the nature of college football, the ball's going to be in the air,” Kelly said. “There are no shut-down corners. There are guys that are just going to have to make plays. It's the nature of college football today, that corners are going to have to have short memories, come back, and make some plays, like (Russell) has this year.”

“Our main problem is that we lose focus,” said junior corner Cole Luke. “We had a solid first and second quarter against SC, then we let up some big plays. That’s what we’ve been focused on, eliminating explosive plays, whether it’s running or passing plays. If we can get that down, we’ll be fine.

“(Wake Forest) obviously likes to pass a good amount. This is a good challenge for us. A great game against Wake Forest would be great confidence-wise. That’s what we’re looking forward to.

“A lot is on the table. We’re going to treat it like a regular game, go out there and do what we usually do.”

That’s the trouble, what they usually do lacks consistency. Finding a level of steady play over the next two weeks will be imperative for the season-ending showdown with Stanford.

That will go a long way toward saying whether or not this is a championship secondary.

“It’s good to be recognized and to be relevant right now,” said Shumate. “We just have to keep playing. It’s motivation to get better and show the world that we’re on a mission this year. We think we can do great things.

“We’re capable of doing anything we set out to do. We have too many players that love each other and care about each other to let each other down.

“We have the mindset and the right attitude. We just have to showcase it. We’re getting better. We’re on the right track to keep moving forward and get better each game. We’re definitely going to get there.”

“We have all four aspects that we need — four great players; five if you want to count the nickel,” said Luke. “We have the talent and the drive to be a championship secondary.”

“We’re working to that point (to be a secondary that’s able to win a championship),” said Farley. “I don’t think anything’s a finished business. We still have steps to take. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we can be that secondary.”

Only one way to prove it.

And, it starts Saturday.

Notre Dame's Cole Luke (36) reaches for an interception next to teammate Matthias Farley (41) and University of Massachusetts Blake Frohnapfel(7) during the second half of the Fighting Irish's win against the University of Massachusetts, Saturday, September 26, 2015 in South Bend. SBT Photo/ Becky Malewitz