As Notre Dame prepares for the 2014 season, most of the focus has been on Brian VanGorder's rebuilt front seven. Replacing stars Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix—not to mention longtime starters Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese—will be no easy task.
But in VanGorder's attacking system, the pressure falls on the secondary. And as the cornerbacks are asked to switch from playing a majority of zone coverage under Bob Diaco to man-to-man in the new system, one breakdown in the back end can result in six points for the opponents.
Enter Max Redfield.
Notre Dame's sophomore safety has been tabbed to be the Irish's free safety. He'll be both the last line of defense and one of the Irish's top athletes on the field, serving as a center fielder responsible for keeping big plays to a minimum, but sometimes using his speed to come blitzing off the edge in VanGorder's exotic scheme.
That's a lot of pressure on a young player who has exactly one start under his belt, a game where Brian Kelly forced him into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl. But Redfield's ascent, and the need for him to play good football after barely playing at all, makes him the X-factor for the Irish in 2014.
Notre Dame's defense has been reliant on great safety play since Kelly arrived in South Bend. One of the first orders of business for Kelly and then-secondary coach Chuck Martin was to fix Harrison Smith. There were doubts that Smith could play safety after a difficult 2009 season that saw him bounce to linebacker, seemingly getting beaten by receivers and missing tackles from either position.
But under Martin's tutelage, Smith bloomed. And the Irish defense improved with him. Smith's tackle total jumped from 69 to 93 from 2009 to 2010, finishing behind only Manti Te'o for the team lead. More amazingly, he became a ball hawk, making seven interceptions after failing to make one the season before.
In 2011, Smith finished with 90 tackles, again only behind Te'o. And while he failed to register any interceptions, he broke up 10 passes and defended 10 more on his way to being drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings.
With Smith gone, Notre Dame's 2012 defense also relied on rock-solid safety play as Zeke Motta stepped to the forefront. After being a part-time starter in 2010 and 2011, Motta slid into Smith's role as the defense's quarterback, and his 77 tackles were again second on the team, trailing only Te'o's 113 on a defense that finished the season as the nation's second-best scoring unit.
Losing Te'o certainly hurt Notre Dame, with the Irish dropping to 27th in scoring defense, down 25 spots (and 10 points a game) from the year before. But a big part of that was not having a safety to rely on in the back end.
In 2013, no safety finished with more than 50 tackles. Matthias Farley, who started the season as the team's top returning safety, finished with 49. He's been moved to cornerback, where he transitioned in the spring. Austin Collinsworth started 11 games but only made 43 tackles.
While Collinsworth will return at the position, playing closer to the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, the free safety job is Redfield's. And on paper, he's a perfect fit.
Redfield has all the athleticism you'd want from a safety, and the 6'1", 194-pounder was among the best players in the country when he walked away from a commitment to USC and chose Notre Dame at the Under Armour All-American game.
Finding his way onto the field in Diaco's defense was a struggle, with the safety position asked to handle a lot of pre-snap responsibilities. And while the learning curve has been steep as the Irish learn VanGorder's new system, Redfield solidified his job with a strong spring practice.
Just because Notre Dame has switched defensive coordinators doesn't mean the safety position will be less important. One look back at VanGorder's defensive stats at Auburn show you how vital the team's safeties were.
VanGorder's 2012 Tiger defense had a safety as the second- and third-leading tackler. Demetruce McNeal started all 12 games for Auburn at free safety, making 90 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Strong safety Jermaine Whitehead made 86 tackles with four behind the line of scrimmage.
While certainly an imperfect science, neither McNeal (who finished his career at West Alabama before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Packers) or Whitehead were in the same stratosphere as Redfield as recruits. And while Redfield will be learning and seeing things for the first time, those numbers give you a baseline for the expectations the Irish coaching staff will have for the position.
Putting up 90 tackles and making plays behind the line of scrimmage is a long way from the one start and 12 total tackles Redfield put together in his freshman season. But it's what was expected from the high school All-American when he signed with the Irish.
With the starting job Redfield's and great expectations on his shoulders, the young Irish safety is one of the keys to Notre Dame's season.