Notre Dame Football analysis: What does leadership look like? We're about to find out.
That true freshman Devin Studstill may have to serve as the Notre Dame pass defense’s safety net in the Sept. 4 season opener, and possibly beyond, isn’t the most harrowing aspect from a football standpoint of the bold, ugly headlines Saturday morning.
It’s that a player being groomed as a leader, and given every chance for redemption, acted anything but Friday night.
Senior free safety Max Redfield was one of six Irish players arrested Friday night and early Saturday morning in two separate incidents.
Of the five who were in a car on U.S. 31 that was pulled over in Fulton County in northern Indiana, the 21-year-old Redfield — the only one in the car over the age of 19 — was the one who certainly should have known better.
Redfield, freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Dexter Williams, sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney and sophomore cornerback Ashton White all have been charged with possession of marijuana.
According to police, a loaded handgun was found in the car, reportedly driven by White, during a search. Redfield, Stepherson and Williams each face a charge of possession of a handgun without a license, according to a news release.
Meanwhile, senior reserve cornerback Devin Butler, out until at least October with a foot injury, was arrested in South Bend on preliminary charges of resisting law enforcement and battery on a police officer.
All this, hours after the team had completed the grueling two-week training camp portion of preseason practice and had been given two days off before resuming practice Monday and starting fall-semester classes on Tuesday.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not comment Saturday. His track record, though, is that of issuing a formal statement once he is satisfied that he has spoken with all the parties involved and gathered all the information necessary to move forward publicly.
Because a player’s prior disciplinary record is private, it’s entirely possible the ultimate consequences, from a football standpoint, won’t be uniform.
Both the legal system and Notre Dame’s disciplinary arm will also have to play out. Charges could eventually stand up over time, or be dropped or reduced. But even if it turns out that Redfield was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kelly has to ask himself if he can ever trust Redfield again, on or off the field.
This isn’t Redfield’s first wake-up call. He has been demoted multiple times during his career and as recently as this past spring, and also was suspended and sent home from the Fiesta Bowl last January.
To his credit, Redfield didn’t take the easy way out and transfer for his final season of eligibility following the January fallout. And on the surface, the former five star-prospect — seemingly chronically star-struck from the onus of that status — had put together such strong stretches of on-the-field consistency this month, he was likely going to be ND’s starting free safety Sept. 4 against Texas.
“I hate to throw clichés around,” Kelly said a little over a week ago between two-a-day practice sessions, “but he’s been that guy that everyone was hoping for out of high school. He’s playing at that level. He’s playing at an elite level.”
In June, Kelly put his team through a two-day, team-building exercise that in part was to help him separate those players who really had the potential to lead from those who simply expressed an interest in wanting to.
Called “The Program,” a team made up of mostly former military personnel pushed the Irish through Navy SEAL-type exercises. Redfield was tested in those two days for his aptitude to be a captain.
“Our intention was to put him out front, where he had to be communicating and he had to be leading to get the job done, not only for himself but for the team he drafted,” Kelly said back in June. “And I really liked the things that he did.”
Later, though, when recounting Redfield’s struggles, the coach admitted: “Quite frankly, Max is a little better when there’s a little bit of adversity on him, when things are a little bit tougher out there.”
This would seem to qualify, though, as more than a little bit.
From a pure X’s and O’s viewpoint, Redfield is the only one of the six who was in line to start against Texas. Quick study Studstill would move up in that event Redfield misses the game, with another true freshman, Jalen Elliott, backing him up.
Spring sensation Stepherson isn’t a projected starter but is a key cog in ND’s wide receiver rotation. Same for Williams in a projected three-man running back rotation. If Williams is sidelined and Kelly feels the need to expand, freshman Tony Jones Jr. likely moves up.
Coney, meanwhile, had been battling fellow sophomore Asmar Bilal and junior Greer Martini for the starting weakside linebacker spot, with Martini only recently surging to the top of that positional depth chart.
White was a depth piece in a young, but talented cornerback corps, diluted a bit this summer by injuries to Butler and Watkins.
But potential personnel losses at Notre Dame, either malignant or benign, are never isolated to pure X’s and O’s. There’s always a big-picture, chemistry, image-managing piece, especially if those losses stray beyond the realm of injuries.
There’s also always a crowd who reads the events as apocalyptic. They see patterns, connect dots. But the most significant dots in Kelly’s recent history are the ones showing his ability to handle and turn the toxic publicity and events.
The 2012 offseason, which culminated months later in a national title run, started with a number of 11th-hour recruiting defections and the weird casting off of early enrollee Tee Shepard.
Freshman All-America defensive end Aaron Lynch walked away a week before the spring game. Incumbent starting quarterback Tommy Rees was arrested, suspended and then demoted. Promising Florida State transfer offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood fell through an academic trapdoor that August.
And then there were seven players, all projected in the two-deeps — if not starting — lost for the season or large chunks of it due to injury.
QB prodigy Gunner Kiel’s transfer to Cincinnati and Everett Golson’s season-long academic misconduct suspension colored the 2013 season and the summer leading up to it. In 2014, Kelly lost five players, three of whom were being heavily counted on, to the protracted academic misconduct investigation.
Last season, running back Greg Bryant transferred after being declared academically ineligible. Key defensive pieces Jarron Jones and Shaun Crawford were lost for the regular season to knee injuries in training camp.
No. 1 running back Tarean Folston, starting QB Malik Zaire and top tight end Durham Smythe, were lost in the season’s first two games, a pattern of next-man-in that continued throughout the season.
The recurring narrative on the other side of adversity was that the culture Kelly has built and the player leadership that surfaced in each of those seasons kept the foundation from swaying and cracking.
Against Texas, Kelly brings one of his most talented ND teams but also the one with the most roster turnover and star-power drain. Since the moments after the Fiesta Bowl loss on Jan. 1, the seventh-year Irish head coach has been peppered with questions about where the next wave of leadership will come from and what it will look like.
He’s about to find out.