SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Five days a week, Max Redfield takes a Mandarin Chinese class at Notre Dame. There is a quiz nearly every day, two assignments due per week, plus oral exams, movie narrations and skits. There are 3,000 characters to learn, sometimes 15 strokes to a character, and one errant swipe is the difference between right and wrong. For a college football player with a packed schedule, it is not a particularly advisable course of study. That's why the sophomore’s academic advisors wonder why he chose it. He has answers for this blowback.
Redfield has always been intrigued by China. It is an expanding market with a booming population and, as the international economics major notes, a lot of money to be made. Also, in middle school, he caught a couple episodes of CSI. That sparked an interest in criminal investigation and forensics, which sparked an interest in government agencies, which has him now aiming to join the CIA. Learning Chinese is tradecraft, a tool to help Redfield blend in.
Working counter to designs on counterintelligence: Being a 6-foot-1, 198-pound starting safety for one of the most visible college programs in the nation, while touting hopes for an NFL career. Sitting in a recruiting lounge at the Fighting Irish’s football complex, Redfield shrugs. “Depending on what your job is and what your operation is, you’ll conceal your identity and people could potentially not even know you’re in the CIA,” he says. “I’m sure if I fit the requirements, fit all the criteria and they actually considered me, they’d figure out a way.”
Redfield treats everything with some version of this adamantine self-assurance. It’s how the former five-star recruit from California became one of the emergent forces on a surprising Notre Dame defense gunning for undefeated Florida State on Saturday, one year after he barely emerged from the sideline at all.
An inability to gain the coaching staff’s trust kept Redfield idling last fall and kept him stewing as a result. He finally earned a start in the Irish’s 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers last December, and so far in 2014 he is the fourth-leading tackler for the nation’s No. 8 scoring defense. He also has drawn ire for blowing up Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner on a block and for a targeting ejection against Purdue. If that’s not exactly what Notre Dame wants, it’s indicative of what it needs: A destructive back-end force setting the tone for a unit that must continue to surpass expectations if the No. 5 Irish are to upend the No. 2 Seminoles.
In that case, Redfield might find his cover blown completely.
“He looks like a hyena, but he plays like a lion,” junior defensive tackle Jarron Jones says. “He’s from the West Coast, he likes to look pretty. But when it’s time to go to it, he shows up. That’s one thing I love about Max: He always shows up.”
at Florida State
at Arizona State
After moving to Mission Viejo, Calif., when his mother remarried, Redfield became a football star and consensus national top-50 recruit, a basketball starter and a track and field captain. He might have added soccer to the list had the season not conflicted with hoops, his first love. (Soccer is in his blood -- his mother, Kathy, played at Connecticut and his aunt is Hall of Fame Team USA defender Joy Fawcett -- but Redfield says he will ask about walking on with Notre Dame basketball. “[Coach Brian Kelly] said I could before I committed,” Redfield says. “I’m going to take him up on that and not let him forget about that.”)
By the time he was a senior, Redfield recognized diligence had to complement athletic dominance. He brought a badly sprained ankle from basketball into track season and coach Matt Hoffman decided Redfield, one of the team’s 400-meter linchpins, shouldn’t run on it for a month. Mindful of maintaining his conditioning with college looming, Redfield asked: What else can I do? Hoffman told him to meet him at the pool every day during lunch. Every day, Redfield swam 20 to 30 laps. “He came through, he became an adult his senior year,” Hoffman says.
Redfield is a big-picture thinker. Typically, he puts the prospect of hardship in a larger context. He needed to stay fit to compete at a high-profile college football program, so he did laps at lunch. He decommitted from USC in November 2012 in part because he studied Notre Dame’s alumni base, both internationally and in California. He determined the long-range benefits outweighed the negatives of a SoCal kid suffering the snow plumes and banalities of a Catholic school located in northwest Indiana.
“I knew it was going to be rough,” says Redfield, who committed to Notre Dame at the 2013 Under Armour All-America Game. “Nightlife would be a lot worse, the women would be a lot worse, the weather -- a lot worse. But it’s a business decision. I know for a fact it will pay off in the future even though it’s rough now.”
Still, even that cast-iron confidence was tested. Redfield played in 11 regular-season games for the Irish last fall but totaled just 10 tackles, primarily serving on special teams. Even before the Pinstripe Bowl start, Redfield was listed merely as a co-backup to sophomore Elijah Shumate.
He understood he was absorbing a complex position. He understood coaches couldn’t wait on a freshman when there were veteran options. Still, Redfield says he “felt somewhat victimized,” maybe because that’s what a freshman with high expectations will feel like when he’s disappointed. He saw practice reps surge before the USC game on Oct. 19 and the Stanford game on Nov. 30, only to result in little game-day action. His frustration swelled as he watched a unit that ranked a modest 59th nationally in regular-season pass efficiency defense.
“I just felt like I was falling behind what I wanted for myself and what I want to achieve, which was pretty big,” Redfield says. “It hurt, obviously, on a day-to-day basis, to be on the sideline when I feel like I can be making an impact for the team. Our secondary didn’t play very well last year as a whole, had a lot of mistakes in big games. So that was even harder. I’m watching these guys make mistakes and I still can’t even get a chance.”
The trust issues went both ways. Redfield often freelanced as a safety at Mission Viejo High, as his athleticism allowed him to compensate for being occasionally out of position. Notre Dame couldn’t abide ad libs. “We wanted to play him a lot earlier than we did,” secondary coach Kerry Cooks says, “but at this level, when you put a guy in there, you want to be able to trust him and [know] the mistakes he’s going to make aren’t ones that put daggers in your heart.”
Redfield had specific jobs on specific plays, but coaches didn’t see him stick to those jobs consistently. The staff stressed what it calls eye discipline; if Notre Dame was in a Cover-3 or a man free defense, Redfield’s responsibility as a middle-of-the-field safety was to read the “guard-center-guard triangle” -- guard to guard through the quarterback. Even if that indicated a run, Redfield had to hesitate to protect against a play-action pass. The cornerbacks and linebackers expected help up the gut. “It would be run and he would almost beat the linebackers to the play, hitting it at two to three yards past the line of scrimmage,” Cooks says. “Where he shouldn’t even be close to that. If they play-action pass that, there’s nobody in the middle of the field.”
Coaches tried to speed Redfield’s comprehension through extra meetings, scribbling concepts on paper and doing dry-erase board work. As sure as he was that he could perform on Saturdays, Redfield concedes he needed to apply those lessons more quickly than he did. Practice errors preempted his involvement in games. It eventually culminated in the Pinstripe Bowl start, after which Notre Dame would hire a new defensive coordinator, with Bob Diaco taking the head coaching job at Connecticut. Redfield wasn’t worried about starting the learning process all over again. He viewed it as the equal opportunity he craved.
And he instantly took to new coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s teaching methods. After mistakes, Van Gorder issued corrections in the broader context of the defense; Redfield needed to be in a given spot in seven-man spacing, because the other spot was the linebacker’s responsibility, and so on. “That helps us work together a lot better,” Redfield says. Meanwhile, the bowl game start jolted Redfield’s interest level. Van Gorder mandates every player bring a notebook and pen to meetings, and position coaches check the contents regularly. “When I collected Max’s notebook one time, I think maybe there was one other guy who more notes or had as many notes as him, and that was [senior safety] Austin Collinsworth,” Cooks says. “And Austin Collinsworth is a very smart guy.”
In meetings, Redfield asks cornerback Cody Riggs how he feels about a certain coverage, what he’s comfortable with and what tweaks they might suggest. Riggs is a graduate transfer from Florida, where he played in 40 games and started 26, and Redfield is conversing with him on the same plane.
“That’s next level,” Riggs says. “Not just doing whatever it says on the paper -- kind of modifying it and bringing it to coach.”
Deeper understanding means less thinking, and less thinking means Redfield can unleash his aggressiveness. The sophomore has 28 tackles and an interception in six games, though his outing against Purdue on Sept. 13 was cut short by a first-half ejection for targeting quarterback Danny Etling. That followed Redfield's personal foul penalty for walloping Michigan’s Gardner on an interception return at the end of a 31-0 Irish victory on Sept. 6, which Wolverines coach Brady Hoke later called “a little bit of a cheap shot.”
Redfield regretted nothing, besides a Shumate touchdown wiped off the board by the flag. “If I see someone on the other team, I want to hit them,” Redfield says. “That’s how I’ve played my whole life and that’s how I’m going to continue to play. I’m not going to change my game at all.”
Redfield wears a gold-plated Invictus watch on his left wrist. It looks like a small, shimmery tank curled up under his fist. He owns a dozen or so timepieces of various colors to coordinate with specific wardrobe selections. Some people collect shoes or ties. He collects watches. The accessories fit well: Redfield views his life in steps and plans, and he wants to get where he intends to go promptly.
“He knows what he wants, and has no hesitation going after it,” says his mother, Kathy. “Some would say he’s got quite an ego. Which I guess I would have to agree about.”
If the former five-star prospect’s arrival at Notre Dame was tardy, it was far better late than never. “A safety like Max, he can change your whole defense, once he figures it out,” Cooks says. “That’s how far off the charts his athleticism is.”
It’s calculating, but Redfield views Notre Dame as a means to an end. It’s the necessary step to move toward his desired future. He likes the students and he loves his teammates. He believes a defense short multiple suspended starters -- cornerback KeiVarae Russell and lineman Ishaq Williams are embroiled in an academic fraud investigation, and now fellow safety Collinsworth has a dislocated shoulder -- is still approaching its potential. But his focus is on minding the details. It’s his job to get his eyes right, to make the perfect stroke every time.
“Athletically, physically and emotionally, I think I’m at the right spot,” Redfield says. “I have the right mindset to where I want to be. I just want to make sure I am 100 percent accountable and can be relied on.”