A few weeks ago, I stated that perhaps no player embodies the term “expectations” more than Greg Bryant. Sure there’ll be some votes for Malik Zaire. Others might put in a write-in for Brian Kelly’s wardrobe. After all, when you can pull off this jacket…which you won(!)…you’ve set the bar high for future wardrobe choices. If there’s a defensive candidate, a dark horse that might distract the loyal faithful from dissecting Brian Kelly’s offense ad nauseam, it’s the promise that is rising junior safety Max Redfield.
Keeping wonder phenom Jaylon Smith home was an important signing in the Kelly era, but there’s a strong argument that Redfield was an even more impressive – quite possibly the most impressive – get for the current regime. While Smith was higher rated, Redfield wasn’t that far behind. 247 Sports Composite had Redfield as the #30 overall prospect in the 2013 class, and #2 in Notre Dame’s class behind Smith. That class included Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Malik Zaire, and Cole Luke just to name a few. However, Redfield is a California kid who was heavily recruited by USC. To go into California and beat an in-state rival for the top talent is always as good as it gets on the recruiting trail. All questions about Redfield’s intelligence were instantly answered when he chose the Irish over the Trojans.
Just how important is Redfield from a recruiting standpoint? 247 Sports has data going back to 1999 on composite rankings. During that time period, no secondary defender had a higher composite or overall ranking than Redfield. Only four defenders total eclipsed Redfield’s composite score of 0.9852 (1.000 would be a perfect score). Those players: Manti Te’o (2009), Aaron Lynch (2011), Ishaq Williams (2011), and Smith (2013). With that type of back ground, it’s no surprise that many expected a lot from Redfield early.
Redfield’s freshman season had him see limited action in 12 games, but he never made the instant impact that many hoped for. The coaching staff made comments throughout the season that Redfield’s understanding of the playbook and preparation had a ways to go to catch up to his raw physical gifts. Given the uneven play of safety mates Austin Collinsworth, Mathias Farley, Elijah Shumate, and Eilar Hardy, that Redfield wasn’t quick to adapt to the college game seemed like a massive disappointment. In reality, 2013 was going to be a year of transition for the secondary regardless of what Redfield could accomplish.
However, Redfield finally started alongside Austin Collinsworth in the Pinstripe Bowl to close out the year, and so the buzz began anew that 2014 would be Redfield’s break out party. Bob Diaco’s departure and the hiring of more aggressive but also more complex Brian Vangorder complicated the game plan early. The academic suspensions which caused KeiVarae Russell to miss the entire season and Eilar Hardy to miss a substantial portion thinned the secondary before the season ever got going. For a player like Redfield who supposedly struggled to adapt quickly as a freshman, a lot was being thrust upon him to not only learn a new playbook but perform basically from day one.
The early returns were promising. The defense altogether was an excellent, ball hawking unit through the quarter post, which included Redfield making 6 total tackles and recording an interception in the 37*-0 shutout of Michigan. Sadly, the asterisk is because it was Redfield who got called for the crack block during Elijah Shumate’s interception return to end the game. Redfield would follow up in the next game by getting ejected for targeting in the first half versus Purdue. Some of the game understanding issues that were cited for Redfield’s lack of playing time during his freshman year appeared to be rearing their head again. If there was a common vein to Redfield’s early play, it was that he was not quite as crisp and quick to ball as many expected him to be.
Continued struggles adjusting to the Vangorder scheme along with several nagging injuries led to Redfield being demoted from the starting safety spot for Northwestern and Lousiville. And, to complete the cycle of history repeating itself, Redfield appeared to take a step forward during the Music City Bowl versus LSU. Redfield had a career best 14 total tackles and was named by multiple media outlets to their various “All Bowl” teams. Lost in all of the uneven play was the fact that Redfield finished second on the team in total tackles (68) and tied for fourth in solo tackles with 40. The issue remained that it felt hollow compared to what Redfield’s gifts continue to suggest he could do. Consider that every other member of the “normal” starting secondary unit (Shumate, Luke, Riggs, and Farley) all recorded more tackles for loss than Redfield’s 0.5, and he neither forced nor recovered a fumble. His play remained extreme potential rather than converted on field performance.
Coming into 2015, the pressure Redfield will feel to produce is matched only be Zaire. Eilar Hardy, Austin Collinsworth, and Mathias Farley (Updated 6/24/15: As I was reminded by reader Archangel: Farley has a 5th year and is expected to receive a scholarship for the coming season) are all gone. The starting roles firmly belong to the highly touted tandom of Redfield and Shumate, and the number of excuses fans will be willing to tolerate mirrors the number of points Michigan scored versus ND last season. KeiVarae Russell’s return should help. The trio of Cole Luke, Cody Riggs, and Mathias Farley played very well in 2014 for the most part. Luke in particular filled Russell’s absence better than just about anyone could have expected. However, Russell is a pre-season All-American type of talent and if Vangorder feels confident that Russell/Luke can both serve as shutdown corners, the chance for Redfield to get aggressive increases immensely.
While conditioning expectations on the play of others applies to every member of a football team, Redfield’s potential feels particularly entwined with the other members of the defensive unit. The Notre Dame pass rush was so poor last season, that teams had time on demand to stretch the field and wait for the secondary to break down. An injury depleted linebacking corp didn’t help. 2015’s set up for Notre Dame to start two All-American caliber corners and have a deep, athletic linebacking group that just might free Redfield’s natural gifts. A full year in the Vangorder system and perhaps some confidence knowing he’s going to be starting, hell or high water, barring injury, are additional factors in his favor.
BK’s comments following the Blue & Gold game provide additional reason for optimism:
I think Max has really stepped up as a leader. I think he’s a lot more comfortable in his role, and a lot more comfortable with the playbook. I think when you’re younger and you come into a starting position, it’s harder to be vocal because there are a lot of guys older than you. He’s really taken that next step of establishing himself as a leader, being demonstrative and brining everyone to a higher standard with his play.
So what to expect? Assuming health, the most noticeable difference may be in his chance to impact on ball plays through interceptions and fumbles. He seems ideal to disrupt and cause big plays in the Vangorder system. I don’t expect him to be flawless. His lapses though are of the mental type, and that’s the type of thing a good offseason can correct. His trajectory might be more linear than many hoped it would be, and it may still not be put altogether before his senior season, but the chance for drastic improvement is there. His teammates will go a long way towards the final grade on Redfield’s season. If the pass rush does not improve, Redfield will get exposed, like any secondary, forced to cover for extended periods of time. I’m not ready to be more than cautiously optimistic, but that’s okay. Sometimes progress is just slower than we’d like.
PHOTO CREDIT: Nick Gonzales/The Elkhart Truth
- Who the _______ am I Watching? ND’s Depth Chart (Literally) by the Numbers (Part II) - August 29, 2019
- Who the _______ am I Watching? ND’s Depth Chart (Literally) by the Numbers - August 27, 2019
- The People’s Free Guide to ND Football 2019 - August 26, 2019