Doctors recommend that patients battling renal failure try to avoid excess stress as much as possible. That wasn’t really an option last fall for Irish assistant coach Bob Elliott.
Irish assistnat Bob Elliott said he has had a healthy recovery from a kidney transplant.
By mid-September, Elliott was functioning with less than two healthy kidneys and less than two healthy, experienced safeties in his defensive backfield. He got by personally by performing self-dialysis twice a day — sometimes in a locker room, sometimes in the parking lot of a mall if he was on the road — to filter the waste his kidneys could not. On the field, he helped mold rookie Matthias Farley into a link strong enough not to handicap one of the nation’s top defenses.
A little more than a year after starting dialysis, much of that stress has dissipated for Elliott. His recovery from a kidney transplant surgery in early February has been free of complications or setbacks. He described the yearlong health battle as an “inconvenience” after a spring practice session earlier this week before excitedly moving on to talk about the promising development among Notre Dame’s safeties.
“We’re moving to have some pretty good depth at safety whereas we didn’t really have great depth last year,” Elliott said.
The coach believes he may have as many as six able-bodied players ready for game action this fall. Farley is easily the most experienced of the group after starting 11 games in his first season on the field in 2012. He currently lines up next to sophomore-to-be Elijah Shumate, who played nickel back for the Irish last season, on the first-team defense.
Shumate’s classmate, Nicky Baratti, and senior Austin Collinsworth have limited experience, but should be healthy enough to be regular contributors in the fall. Elliott said he wouldn’t rule out incoming freshman Max Redfield or rising junior Eilar Hardy either.
Farley moved from the field safety position to boundary safety this spring with plans to take on more play-calling and offense-reading responsibilities. Elliott said the coaching staff plans to lean heavier on the boundary safety in their defensive schemes this seasons than they have in the past. Collinsworth, who is almost fully recovered from a year of shoulder and back surgeries, has lined up behind Farley in that spot during the spring.
“He’s come quite a ways, but he’s still quite a ways from where he was last spring physically,” Elliott said. “This summer will be really important to Austin, but he’ll be in the mix.”
Collinsworth might also join Shumate and Baratti in a competition for the starting spot at the field safety position in August. Baratti had shoulder surgery this winter and has been very limited during spring practice. Elliott decided to take his absence as an opportunity to toss Shumate into the deep end.
Shumate played outside linebacker in high school and cornerback as a freshman in order to get him on the field as soon as possible. His physical skills allow him to play just about anywhere on the back end of a college defense, but Notre Dame’s coaches decided during the offseason to groom him as a safety. This spring gives him the time and space to try to learn one of the defense’s more mentally demanding positions.
“He can tackle. He can play man-to-man. He can track the ball,” Elliot said. “It’s the mental gyrations that go on through a play — the calls he has to make, how he plays a certain route by call — and it’s just all new to him. He just needs to rep after rep after rep. When Baratti gets back in the fall that will be a heck of a fight.”
Five-star recruit Max Redfield also figures to be a part of the mix if he can catch up to Shumate and Baratti in the required mental gymnastics.
“We’ll have to see. We had four safeties come in last year, and in training camp it was just mind-boggling. Those guys had a real hard time picking up our defense. Baratti was the guy who picked it up the best and he was still struggling,” Elliot said. “We’ll have to see how fast Max picks things up.”
There is at least a formula now for Elliott’s charges to cram for the position, provided by Farley. With only one spring session as a defensive back and only four years of actual football on his résumé, Farley found ways to absorb the information he needed to survive on the field.
His rapid conversion from scout team wide receiver to starting safety was fueled by daily film sessions with Elliott at his side. Farley said he and the coach reviewed tape after each practice while the latter tended to his failing kidney.
“Coach Elliott is a monster. He’s a beast,” Farley said. “He would never complain about it. We still have the same relationships, still go watch film together every day. You wouldn’t know unless he told you, basically. He doesn’t share it unless you ask. He’s still been the same coach, no difference whatsoever.”
Elliott said he and his sister, the best match out of a lengthy list of volunteer organ donors, have both stayed healthy since their surgeries in February. He carries a water bottle with him now to keep his new kidney well hydrated, one of the two caveats resulting from the transplant. The other, he said, is not getting hit on the practice field. Despite the extra bodies flying around this spring, he’s managed to to uphold that one as well.