Analysis: How will Notre Dame secondary move on without Max Redfield?
Safety not guaranteed
Seated at a table inside the Loftus Center during Media Day last week, Todd Lyght delivered a dose of unfortunate foreshadowing.
“I’ve seen a lot of toughness from Max (Redfield). A lot of grit,” said Lyght, a former Notre Dame All-American defensive back and the team’s second-year defensive backs coach. “He’s the type of player that can run all day long. He needs to do a better job of leading from the front and setting a great example for the younger players of how we do things and how we go about our business.”
Two days later, Redfield’s Notre Dame career abruptly ended, when he and four teammates — the aforementioned “younger players” — were arrested following a traffic stop in Fulton County. All five were charged with possession of marijuana, and three of them — Redfield, freshman wide receiver Kevin Stepherson and sophomore running back Dexter Williams — were also charged with possession of a handgun without a license.
Redfield was the only senior in the car.
On Sunday, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly dismissed Redfield from the team, leaving a morass of unproven talent in his wake. Gone is the former five-star prospect’s head-scratching inconsistency. Gone is the troubling immaturity that left him suspended from last season’s Fiesta Bowl and repeatedly demoted throughout a college career that was big on hype but small on substance.
Gone, too, are 23 career starts, 144 career tackles and the kind of tangible game experience that the Irish secondary desperately lacks.
Assess the tattered remains of Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart, and you’ll find three true freshmen — Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and D.J. Morgan — and few other realistic options at free safety. Notre Dame’s only scholarship safety with legitimate game experience is starting strong safety Drue Tranquill, who has started four games but also had each of his first two seasons stunted by separate torn ACLs.
Besides Tranquill, Notre Dame has seven scholarship safeties, and none have played a snap in South Bend outside of special teams.
So that’s what defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is dealing with.
The good news, if you’re willing to embrace a stray ray of sunlight poking feebly through the clouds, is that Studstill was being groomed to play anyway. The 6-foot, 198-pound freshman made immediate waves after enrolling early last winter, earning Kelly’s repeated praises and even hopping over Redfield to practice with the starting unit. Elliott, too, was tabbed as an immediate contributor even before stepping foot on campus in South Bend this summer.
In the season opener at Texas on Sept. 4, freshmen will be counted on to fulfill crucial roles in Notre Dame’s defense.
That was true a week ago, just as it’s true today.
“They are talented players that are going to have to play for us early in their career,” Kelly said of Notre Dame’s defensive freshmen on Media Day last week. “But we feel like a number of them are in a position to play this year and they will have to play this year. We don't have the luxury to wait around for them to be second-, third-year players.
“Now we just have to play them a little bit sooner than maybe we want to, but we think that they are talented (enough) to go up there and make up for any lack of experience, if you will.”
But how will Notre Dame’s coaching staff compensate for a free safety position stocked only with a trio of unseasoned freshmen? The most obvious option to transition into a safety role is 6-2, 200-pound freshman Donte Vaughn, who was recruited by many programs as a safety but has impressed early in fall camp at the cornerback position.
Vaughn’s long term future may be at cornerback, but his positional flexibility could pay dividends this fall.
“Having Donte Vaughn has been unbelievable. He has been a great addition to our secondary,” Lyght said last week. “Three years from now, Donte Vaughn is going to be an elite player. I really, really like working with him. Great young man. Great teammate. Eager learner.
“He’s the type of player who can get things done and make plays at the end of the route due to his length. He can really give offenses problems. We really like his ability to match onto key guys and just try to take him out of the game. I think he’ll be one of those shutdown corners when it’s all said and done.”
What about Nick Watkins? Notre Dame’s 6-0, 200-pound cornerback continues to recover from a surgery intended to stimulate bone growth in the left arm he initially broke last spring. The lanky junior is set to be evaluated in roughly two weeks, but when he returns, Watkins possesses the size and speed to potentially switch positions in the defensive secondary.
Shifting out of the secondary entirely, might junior Corey Holmes be a prime candidate to flip to the defensive side? The 6-1, 190-pound wide receiver registered a 4.39-second 40-yard-dash and 41-inch vertical leap last spring, but has struggled to separate himself at the slot receiver position thus far in fall camp. Holmes’ father, David Holmes, played defensive back at Syracuse and later in the NFL.
With less than two weeks until the season opener, it would be difficult for any player in any scheme to fluidly adapt to a new position. Then, consider the complexity of VanGorder’s defense, plus the fact that the safety position is perhaps the most complex in his intricate pro-style scheme.
Add it all up, and even if roster moves are made, the freshmen are going to have to play.
And if the Irish are to live up to their lofty ranking, they’ll have to play well, too.
“Practicing and training against our offense is tremendous, because we do so many things offensively with regard to scheme,” Lyght said. “(The freshmen defensive backs) are going to see a ton. When they get in the games against other opponents, they’ll be well prepared.
“But how will they react under the bright lights and on the big stage? That’s another thing. But these are big-time high school football players that came to Notre Dame to play in big-time situations. So I think they’ll be ready.”
Ready or not, here they come.