When Notre Dame sophomore safety Elijah Shumate laments that you “win some and lose some,” it’s almost comical.
During his New Jersey high school football career at Paterson Catholic (which closed its doors after the 2009-10 academic year) and then Don Bosco Prep, Shumate never experienced defeat while starring as a four-year varsity running back, safety and linebacker.
Then with Shumate playing all 12 regular-season games as Notre Dame’s nickel back and special teams mainstay as a freshman last season, the 12-0 Irish start pushed his personal winning streak beyond 50 games. The 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game was his first setback on a football field since a 2007 playoff game in the eighth grade.
“That was really hard,” reflected Shumate on the Crimson Tide debacle. “I never want to have to go through that again, but it’s part of life, it’s part of growing up: win some, lose some.”
Well, as long as 99-percent of the time you win …
A larger part of Shumate’s growing process is occurring this spring while attempting to nail down the safety position vacated by the graduated Zeke Motta, last year’s Defensive MVP (linebacker Manti Te’o was voted the Team MVP). While junior Matthias Farley and senior Austin Collinsworth have been working as the boundary safeties, Shumate has been establishing himself at field safety. All three are likely to see extensive action this season, similar to the Harrison Smith-Jamoris Slaughter-Motta rotation in 2011.
Unlike Farley, who came out of nowhere last year to excel at safety after working as a reserve wideout his freshman season, the 6-0, 213-pound Shumate is more primed to make an impact that might be even greater than Farley’s in 2012. Shumate’s playmaking skills and physical style instantly made him the top nickel back last season, and he immediately recorded crucial third-down pass breakups in the second and third games, versus Purdue and Michigan State, respectively. He also made a critical third-down stop of Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri in one overtime to help aid that dramatic victory.
“It helped a lot just because I got game-time experience,” Shumate said of his role at nickel. “I was able to learn and watch Zeke as he was putting me in the best position in a game and see how he was doing, and now have the role that he played.”
At nickel, Shumate was in an ideal position because it was a way to get him on the field without overwhelming him with too many assignments.
“Most of the time when I was out there I was playing man, and I had to learn some zone coverage,” Shumate said. “It was a lot easier. [The coaches] didn’t want to make it so hard for me coming in my first year. They wanted me to get some game-time experience.
“Zone was definitely a lot tougher. Playing the nickel position, they just wanted me to be down there to play man and play press and kind of beat the slot receivers up. That was kind of easier for me. When I had to play zone it was a lot tougher.”
Shumate’s progress is part of the reason why the staff was confidently able to shift classmate C.J. Prosise from safety to receiver, where he is making his own impact. Along with linebacker Jarrett Grace and center Nick Martin, Prosise and Shumate are four of the top candidates for newcomers of the year this season.
“He is what we thought he was in terms of a tackler,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Shumate. “He’s a very good tackler, a sure tackler. He’s physical. He can play the safety position.”
Safeties coach Bob Elliott’s main job with Shumate is to expand his knowledge base so that he can confidently relay any calls on the field that have to be made to the defense.
“My major adjustment has been just calls and formation and trying to adjust everybody and adjust myself to each formation,” Shumate said.
That has not been a simple proposition because he is on a large learning curve himself. However, he uses Farley’s progress last season as an example of gradually getting the defense down pat.
“Matthias was doing what I was doing and he’s helped me a lot with communication,” Shumate said. “He has been showing me a lot. Last year he didn’t want to say anything, he didn’t really know anything . He’s confident now, knows all his stuff and has been a great leader … so has Austin.
“Coming in I wasn’t very confident and I was making a lot of mistakes. But I’m getting a lot more confident now. [Cornerback] KeiVarae [Russell] will sometimes tell me, ‘No, that’s not the right call to make. Call another call.’ Outside linebackers will look at me like, ‘No, no, wrong call.’ They’ve definitely helped me out and are making my job a lot easier.”
“Coach Elliott has done a nice job [with] the learning curve,” Kelly said. “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.
“He’s our guy back there. 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.”
And maybe add another long winning streak to his football dossier.