Our series on Now or Never players for Notre Dame in 2014 continues today moving back to the defensive side of the ball with a look at junior Elijah Shumate as he battles for a starting role a year after many thought he was primed for a breakout season.
Elijah Shumate came to Notre Dame as a versatile defensive back out of powerhouse New Jersey prep program Don Bosco Prep. One of the premier programs in the state of New Jersey, Don Bosco cranks out numerous division 1 caliber prospects on a yearly basis and Shumate was another in a line of standouts they produced.
Prior to committing to Notre Dame, Shumate held offers from USC, Michigan, Georgia, Penn State, Oklahoma, Miami, South Carolina, Rutgers, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina among others. A US Army All-American, Shumate committed to Notre Dame during the All-American Bowl festivities in San Antonio. At the time, Shumate was ranked as the #2 safety in the country and a top 100 overall prospects by 247 Sports – distinctions that were backed up by his offer list.
As a freshman at Notre Dame in 2012, Shumate saw action in all 13 games including the BCS National Championship playing primarily the nickel roll in Notre Dame’s stout defense in addition to having a prominent role on special teams.
A year later as a sophomore in 2013, however, Shumate began the season with a starting role but saw his playing drop after his responsibilities grew and as he battled a nagging hamstring injury.
Reason for Optimism
There may not be a more athletically gifted safety on the Notre Dame roster than Elijah Shumate. He’s big and strong and can run and hit with the best of them. Physically, he is just a better athlete than most of the other safeties on the roster in 2014.
Similarly to Harrison Smith a few years ago, to this point in his career, Shumate just hasn’t been able to have the game slow down for him to a point where all of that athletic skill is able to be turned into consistent production on the field. Shumate has that same kind of potential though that we saw in Smith during the first few frustrating years of Smith’s collegiate career when then head coach Charlie Weis bounced the Tennessee native around from position to position.
If the game slows down for Shumate this year, he has the potential to be a playmaker at strong safety in Brian VanGorder’s defense. He has shown the ability to make a big hit in his limited playing time the past two seasons. Add that hitting ability with the ability to run like a corner and you have a potentially dangerous strong safety. That kind of speed is exactly what Notre Dame has been lacking on defense far too many times over the years.
Reason for Doubt
While Shumate’s talent and athletic ability has never been in doubt, he has not yet shown the ability to be able to consistently make plays or even be in the proper position to make plays. It is not a given that the game will slow down for him as we’ve seen with many players before who had all of the athletic skill in the world but just could never turn that skill into on the field production – think most recently of a guy like Steve Filer.
Shumate will also have to beat out Austin Collinsworth for a starting position to really be able to make his mark in 2014. Collinsworth is not the athlete that Shumate is but has shown the ability to make the necessary calls from the safety position and be in position to make plays. For Collinsworth, the problem has been he has not always made the plays he has been in position to make.
Another factor that could work against Shumate is his own discipline. He sat out the season finale against Stanford due to a violation of team rules along with fellow safety Eliar Hardy. It was never revealed what that violation was but it’s safe to say that after one such incident, Brian Kelly won’t be quick to tolerate similar lapses in discipline from Shumate regardless of how much potential he has.
There are a lot of question marks on the 2014 Notre Dame defense due to all of the talent the Irish must replace on that side of the ball in addition to having an entirely new scheme under VanGorder. Having Shumate step up and earn a starting role would answer one of those questions by getting a whole lot of speed and athletic ability in the defensive backfield.
When Mathias Farley was moved to corner after a very up and down junior campaign, it opened up an opportunity for Max Redfield to find his way into the starting lineup – a opportunity he seemingly grabbed a fairly firm grasp of during the second half of spring practice. Shumate has a similar opportunity in front of him this summer.
Collinsworth will start fall camp atop the depth chart at strong safety just as he ended spring practice, but Shumate will have every opportunity to unset the 11-game starter from 2013. It might, however, take a monster fall camp for Shumate to crack the starting line on August 30. That doesn’t mean that Shumate won’t end the season in the starting lineup though.
Look for Collinsworth to be the opening day starter for Notre Dame as Shumate continues to learn the position and master the nuances of playing safety. By the end of the season though, look for Shumate to be lining up next to Redfield in the back of the Irish secondary. If that happens, Notre Dame will have its most athletically gifted starting safety duo in some time.