Michigan Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner had no idea what happened. He had just thrown an interception on the final possession of a nightmare game, under the lights and on the road, in the final game for the foreseeable future against a bitter enemy. Now, he was on the ground, in at least a bit of pain.
He'd been knocked down various times throughout the game. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense had made sure to get a few licks in. But this one he didn't see coming. He had been running in pursuit of Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate, who had stepped in front of his desperate pass in the 4th quarter of the 31-0 game. And all of a sudden, BAM.
The agent who delivered the devastating blow to the unsuspecting QB? It was Notre Dame sophomore safety Max Redfield, an athletic specimen who appeared to really be coming into his own during the game, having picked off a Gardner pass earlier to go along with 6 tackles.
The block, which ended up helping spring Shumate for an icing-on-the-cake touchdown, was flagged as a penalty for hitting the defenseless quarterback, and so the final score officially reads 31-0 in all the history books. Irish fans, of course, know the real score (quick apology that this was the best-quality YouTube video of the hit I could find).
But looking back at that version of Max Redfield, it's hard to believe where the promising, tough, badass safety prospect is heading into his senior season for Notre Dame. As a junior in 2015, Redfield looked lost at times, seemingly mixing up coverage assignments left and right in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's complex system. It got so bad that many had written off Redfield as a lost cause, and pined for the earlier games of the season when sophomore Drue Tranquill had looked very promising in his performance before tearing his ACL against Georgia Tech.
Now, heading into the 2016 season, Redfield's role on the defense is more up in the air than it's ever been. Early enrollee freshman Devin Studstill has been listed on many a depth chart as the starting free safety ahead of Redfield, which certainly isn't a good sign considering the major excuse everyone has made for Redfield was the time it takes to understand VanGorder's defense.
And yet that excuse has never seemed to hold a lot of water, once you delve into it. There's something to be said for football intelligence as opposed to general intelligence, but Redfield's natural ability and instincts, matched with his academic prowess, would point to a player who should have grasped the complexities of the system early in his career. I mean, the kid is studying Mandarin Chinese and has hopes of landing a job at the CIA one day. And athletically, he's one of the most talented players on the team. That talent shines through in his raw stats, as he's put up 68 and 64 tackles in the past two seasons, good for 2nd and 4th on the team, respectively. That's the player everyone anticipated when they watched his high school highlight tapes.
So if it isn't his natural talent and it isn't his ability to understand complex football concepts, what is holding Max Redfield back? We're talking about a former 5-star safety prospect that the Irish flipped from being a USC commitment and who was one of the headliners in the program's best recruiting class, at least on paper, in probably 20 years.
I'm not one to be in the business of guessing at players' motivations, and I would never question Redfield's heart or desire. By every indication out there, he works hard and his teammates love playing with him. But the missed assignments, the suspension from the Fiesta Bowl, the possibility of a true freshman unseating him as a senior - something just hasn't come together for the ultra-talented guy from Mission Viejo, California.
As a fan of redemption and of fantastic stories in general, I'm really rooting for Redfield to put it all together this season and just blow people away. Doesn't it just sound like a movie script - super-talented, hot-shot recruit comes in, wallows behind lesser talent as a freshman, finally takes the reins, disappoints and even gets sent home from a big game, the coach threatens to start a freshman over him, and he finally refocuses and corrects his mistakes and plays at the All-American level he's definitely capable of playing at?
I think it's absolutely possible, but I'll also remain skeptical until he proves it. He's shown flashes of potential and then disappeared again and again, so I definitely won't clamor for him to start over Studstill unless he's earned it. But I'll be watching him closely, and rooting for him to finally become the NFL-caliber safety we all expected him to be.
He's a puzzling player, but one whose story definitely hasn't finished yet. With any luck, many more opponents will have similar nightmarish encounters with Redfield in the same vein as Gardner's. That's something we can all root for, and get all riled up about. Well, except, maybe, opposing quarterbacks.