George Atkinson III took a swing pass into the flat, darting up field during Notre Dame’s Saturday scrimmage. Safety Matthias Farley broke toward the sideline and began to wrap up the running back.
Then came Elijah Shumate.
Then Atkinson got planted into the turf.
In one violent hit the sophomore safety showed why he’s the favorite to replace Jamoris Slaughter at the back end of Notre Dame’s defense.
In a jumbled safety competition the Irish have options. They don’t have a better athlete than Shumate.
“He’s our guy back there,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s got to continue to learn. The spring has been really good for him. He’s going to have to continue to take steps forward in the summer.”
To understand those steps, consider Shumate played outside linebacker and running back at Don Bosco Prep. Then he played cornerback as a freshman at Notre Dame, working primarily in the nickel. And now he’s at safety, where he’s a long way from defensive fluency.
“Honestly like every play I’m always thinking about what I gotta do,” Shumate said. “It’s still a learning process. I’m starting to get a lot more comfortable now. I’m starting to get a lot more of the scheme down packed as the practices have been going through. It’s just a work in progress and every day I’m trying to learn and get better.”
Shumate is working at field safety, asked to not only line up himself, but align the Irish linebackers too. It’s created a mental pressure that Shumate’s risen to meet, seeking out Farley and other vets for film study.
The extra effort is essential if Notre Dame plans to recreate last season’s pass defense. Entering the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, the Irish had allowed 9.68 yards per completion, which not only led the nation but was a program best since 1948.
The Irish had allowed just seven passing touchdowns all season before A.J. McCarron torched Notre Dame for four in the title game.
“You could put (Shumate) anywhere on the field and he could play,” Farley said. “Playing safety, there’s a lot thrown at you. There’s a lot of moving parts.
It’s easy to get bogged down and frustrated really because you’re dealing with so much, so fast. You’re responsible for making sure everyone’s in the right spot.
“He’s handling the learning curve really well.”
Perhaps working in Shumate’s favor will be the green quarterbacks on the Irish schedule. Eight opponents may break in new ones. That leaves Stanford, Navy, Michigan State and Arizona State.
The Cardinal and Midshipmen both made mid-season quarterback switches and return that partial starter. The Spartans benched their starter in the bowl game. The Sun Devils return senior Taylor Kelly, who finished in the Top 10 nationally in passer efficiency.
The Irish coaching staff believes playing safety in the Notre Dame defense is harder than playing corner. Shumate agrees based on the past three weeks with the Blue-Gold Game coming up Saturday.
“Back there you just see everything and it’s a lot slower than playing corner,” Shumate said. “Basically you can make a lot of calls and you can be a vocal point back there. You can be a leader. It’s basically like playing at quarterback on defense.”
Much like it took the entire offense to bring along Notre Dame’s actual quarterback last season, it appears a team effort is in the works for Shumate. The sophomore has been open to it.
“He is what we thought he was in terms of a tackler,” Kelly said. “He’s a very good tackler, a sure tackler. He’s physical. He can play the safety position. I think coach (Bob) Elliott has done a nice job of the learning curve. That’s certainly what this is all going to be about, picking up the nuances. Matthias has done a very good job in helping him. But I think the entire defense is helping as well.”