When Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder discusses any of his five safeties, his primary adjectives vary. Eilar Hardy is “inconsistent.” Max Redfield has “a long way to go.” Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, is “improving.”
In fact, VanGorder repeated “improving” as his first response to a question about the junior on Monday. As Shumate improves, he does so hoping to build on last year’s four starts. Though a hamstring injury restricted Shumate to only 10 games, 23 tackles and one pass break-up, the starts gave him an idea of what full-time playing time is like.
“It left a taste in my mouth,” he said. “It just made me want to come out and compete this year.”
Along with Hardy, a senior, and Redfield, a sophomore, Shumate is competing with senior Austin Collinsworth and junior Nicky Baratti for each snap he’ll play in the fall. Thus far in spring practices, Redfield and Collinsworth have lined up with the first unit while Shumate and Baratti often pair together with the second-string.
Naturally, each safety wants to play as much as he can, but that desire has not taken away from Notre Dame’s greater goal.
“We’re all out there trying to get the same goal, that’s the national championship, and we all have one mindset, and that’s to be great,” Shumate said. “It’s great to compete with a bunch of great guys, so you know we’re making each other better. It’s part of making the team better and trying to get better every day.”
VanGorder’s adjectives regarding the safeties all indicate room for growth -- even “improving” inherently means Shumate needs to upgrade his play -- in part because their job description has changed in his newly-installed 4-3 defense. The aggressive defense, both as it relates to blitzes and man-coverage, puts more of the field on the safeties’ docket.
“Last year, the safeties weren’t that much in space. This year it’s more space,” Shumate said. “It plays into the aggressiveness. We get after it. It’s more like we’re trying to be the offense on defense. We’re trying to dictate the game.”
Covering more space means the Irish safeties have a chance to show off their physical skills, something VanGorder has seen from Shumate. Though former receiver James Onwualu has already moved from safety to linebacker this spring, Shumate and his 6-foot-0, 213-pound frame remain in the defensive backfield. He insists he has not thought about following Onwualu’s path, instead leaving that decision to the coaches. Apparently they like Shumate’s physicality on the back line.
“He’s got the physical talent to do a lot of things as a safety physically, so he’s just growing in the game,” VanGorder said. “He’s a very talented player that’s learning the game and coming along. That’s his challenge.
“No matter what you do, the objective is to get a player comfortable to where he can play the game fast. Ultimately, you’ve got to be able to play fast. When you’re fighting through the learning process like a number of the guys are right now, including (Shumate), then that’s the battle. He’s got to see reps, got to study hard, got to watch film, got to do all of the things to speed that up for him.”
Echoing his fellow safeties, Shumate said he has increased his film study this spring in large part due to the presence of graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy. With McCarthy around, VanGorder and defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks allow the 2009 Notre Dame graduate to work with the safeties on his own as Cooks focuses on the cornerbacks.
“(Learning the new system) would definitely be very difficult without having Kyle,” Shumate said, describing the graduate assistant as his “dude.” “We’re in the film room every day, watching film, getting better every day.”
Getting better every day. That sounds a lot like the definition for “improving.”