It didn’t take long for veteran secondary coach Bob Elliott to spot some truly unique characteristics in freshman defensive back Elijah Shumate.
“Very seldom do you recruit a safety that moves to corner, although we have one this year - Elijah Shumate - who was so athletic at safety that we felt he was capable of, first, playing the role of a nickel,” said Elliott back in mid-August, before Shumate had played a down for the Irish.
“He’s very, very athletic. He has corner feet and burst and speed and athleticism. He may be a safety still in his career. He may be a corner. But we think he can definitely be a nickel-type of player and on special teams.”
Shumate did indeed win the nickel job as a true freshman. The emergence of Dog linebacker Danny Spond allowed the Irish to use more base defensive coverage in long yardage situations, thus cutting into Shumate’s playing time.
But the 6-foot-0, 198-pounder from East Orange, N.J., and Don Bosco Prep played in all 13 games, making nine tackles (seven solo) to go along with three passes broken up and three passes defensed.
“It was a great opportunity and I had fun going out there and playing the game I’ve loved to play since I was seven-years old,” said the effervescent Shumate. “It’s been a big transition from high school to college, but it’s been a fun transition.”
Early in the season, Shumate was in the spotlight every time he stepped on the field. He had a pass break up against Purdue in Week Two, and then came up with two more in Week Three against Michigan State.
“They wanted me to play the nickel because they wanted to get me on the field and get some game experience,” Shumate said. “I would have one down to make a play -- third down -- and I had to make a play.”
Shumate sensed the opposition was picking on him because of his inexperience.
“You see this random guy out there, No. 22, and he hasn’t been out there the whole time,” said Shumate, breaking into his light-up-the-room grin. “They tend to go at that guy.”
Shumate relished those opportunities, even trying to bait the opposing quarterback into throwing to the man he was defending.
“You kind of like make a few moves or be a second late so they throw it to him, and you come up and make a play on the ball,” Shumate laughed. “I had to find a way to make the quarterback throw it to my man.”
As the Irish prepared for their national title tilt with Alabama, Shumate wasn’t sure where his future would be. A safety by trade, he could compete for the open spot vacated by the loss of veterans Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, he could remain predominately in the nickel back role, or he could compete with cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell to form a rotation.
“I can’t really say where my future is, but I’m pretty sure that the coaches have a great plan for me, whether it’s cornerback or safety,” Shumate said.
“I’ve been playing defensive back since I was a freshman in high school. I told the coaches, ‘Wherever you need me in the defensive backfield, I can play it. Whether it’s corner, nickel, safety, strong safety…it doesn’t matter.’”
Coming from a high school where discipline is a prerequisite for success, Shumate’s transition to college life, while not without its bumps in the road, has been pretty smooth. In his own words, Shumate “crushed it” in the classroom his first semester. Yet he remains wary of the challenges that lie ahead.
“There are always adjustments, especially being on your own and not having your parents around,” Shumate said. “Then you’re at a Catholic school and you have to watch what you do and say. It’s definitely a transition, but it’s a great transition.
“You’ve got to be focused in the classroom if you want to maintain a certain g.p.a., and you’ve got to be focused on the field if you want to stay on the field. They teach you about character and how to be a better person.”
Shumate quickly learned what he didn’t know about football in his early days on the Irish practice field.
“My first year at Notre Dame definitely changed my knowledge of the game,” Shumate said. “I came from a great program in high school where you’re the man. But in college, you’ve got to be patient.
“This next level is a lot faster and you’ve got to be a student of the game. That’s definitely what Notre Dame teaches you. It helps you build character on and off the field because it’s a great academic school. It was hard at first in the summer, but as the year went along, I adjusted.”
Still, Shumate learned he didn’t know as much about the game on this level as he thought.
“The tough part is just trying to get everything down pat,” Shumate said. “Coaches are in your ear and they have big expectations. That’s why we (played) in the national championship. We’ve got the greatest coaches in the world.
“The expectations are really high. Being a freshman, you make a lot of mistakes. Everything is big and you try to put that in the back of your mind. You’ve got to learn how to leave that alone and play for the next play.”
Shumate also adjusted to thinking in terms of BCS games and national championships.
“I knew how much talent we had and I knew how young we were, and I knew we had a lot of work to do,” said Shumate, reflecting back upon his first year of football at Notre Dame.
“But I also knew that this is a special team. That’s why I came here. I had no doubt that we were going to be a winner.”