Sept. 28, 2015
By Curt Rallo
It only took three plays into the University of Texas’ first possession of the college football season opener for fans at Notre Dame Stadium to see the University of Notre Dame defensive backs would be bringing an intellect and intensity onto the field.
Irish defensive backs Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate slammed Texas ball carrier Armanti Foreman to the turf with a bruising tackle on Longhorns’ first play of the possession. On the second play, cornerback Cole Luke teamed up with linebacker Jaylon Smith to deck Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes. The Irish secondary then snuffed any Longhorns’ hopes of a first down, blanketing the Texas receivers and forcing an incomplete pass.
Forceful play by the secondary left an impression on Irish fans. It left a mark on Texas.
Notre Dame would go on to beat Texas, 38-3. The Longhorns would only manage 7-of-22 passing for 103 yards, and only two of the passes were for 20 or more yards.
First-year Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght is the architect of a Notre Dame secondary, which served notice early that it will be physically punishing, and take an intellectual approach onto the field.
It’s a blueprint that served Lyght well in his playing career, earning him a national championship ring at Notre Dame, and a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams.
Lyght earned consensus All-America honors twice (1989 and 1990). He was the leading tackler for coach Lou Holtz’s Irish in the Fiesta Bowl victory against West Virginia that secured the 1988 national title for the Irish.
Developing a passion for pursing knowledge at Notre Dame, now, Lyght is passing knowledge onto his Fighting Irish student-athletes, and instilling in them championship traits he learned at Notre Dame.
Lyght, who interned as a coach at the University of Oregon and then followed Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles as an assistant defensive backs coach, said he is still learning about football.
“You have to be a life-long learner as a coach,” Lyght says. “The game always is evolving, and you have to constantly be learning new schemes, and new techniques. You have to have the mindset that you haven’t figured it all out, because no one has. If you really want to be good, you have to constantly keep pushing the envelope and try new things. That’s what I learned from Coach (Chip) Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles.”
Redfield said that Lyght’s championship pedigree captures the attention of his players, but it’s his teaching techniques and his toughness that have the Irish secondary stepping up its game in Lyght’s first season as Notre Dame’s defensive backs coach.
“Obviously, he’s been to Notre Dame, so he’s been through everything we go through, the weather, all of the other stuff, so we can relate to him on a really personal level,” Redfield says of Lyght. “He was a player who had incredible success. The fact that he had great success on the college and the professional level obviously speaks to how great of a player he is, but the best thing I feel is that he can articulate really well the things that made him elite on the field.
“Coach Lyght has a football knowledge that really takes you to the next level,” Redfield continues. “We’ll be in film room, and he’ll teach us about certain concept or technique, and then he’ll tell us, if you really want to be elite, he’ll teach us even more. I think that’s great about him. That experience you don’t get from a lot of coaches, because he was in the game for so long and had exceptional success.”
Lyght says that it takes toughness to be able to excel in a position that is under the harshest glare of football’s bright lights. He wants his players to be the ones applying pressure, not feeling it.
“If you are defining a defense, especially a secondary, you want to be mentally and physically tough, first and foremost,” Lyght says. “We want to work hard on and off the field with our preparation. We want to have a high football IQ, and we want to be known as playmakers, guys who when they are in position to make plays, whether it be tackling in the open field, making plays in the pass game with ball disruption, or making plays when the quarterback makes mistakes and we come up with the big interception, and score on defense.
“If you’re going to be successful at the cornerback position, you have to have supreme confidence. You have to have one-play focus. You’re not going to win on every play. There are games, when I was a young player, where I was successful on 78 out of 80 plays, but I had two bad plays that would result in two bad games. That’s a pretty tough position to play. I’m trying to explain to the players that consistency at a high level is critical for success at that position. They understand that. The attention to detail that our young men have been preparing with has been great.”
Lyght took command of the Irish defensive backs room in his first meeting. The Irish learned quickly their new position coach could validate everything he taught them with evidence from the highest levels of college and the NFL.
“In our first individual meetings, coach Lyght took control,” Redfield says. “He gave us a few hints about what was elite, and then he laid it down. He said, `I’m not going to accept anything less than greatness from you guys.’ Coach Lyght shows grit and toughness. We’ll talk about how technique has to be great, but he doesn’t want any of us to let a ball get caught on us.
“His mindset is, on every single play, I’m going to dominate you no matter what,” Redfield continues about Lyght. “I’m going to be the dominant person in this confrontation. He has that toughness that every player needs. His coaching is relentless and he’s a very intelligent man. He backs up everything he says, so we can relate to it and see the relevance. He’s bringing out our fierceness and our intellect.”
Lyght’s players have learned that he is committed to developing their intellect, and their toughness.
“He stays on us 100 percent of the time,” Redfield says of Lyght. “He’s relentless in doing that. That’s what we like, and that’s what we need. That mental toughness and intellectual aspect of the game from top to bottom is what he brings to us, and he makes sure that everybody gets the message. It’s also great that he’s a very positive person and a very encouraging person to all of the players.”
Lyght’s passion for Notre Dame never waned, and Irish fans saw it once again at Notre Dame Stadium, this time on the sidelines.
“It’s very exhilarating, it’s very exciting to be coaching at Notre Dame,” Lyght says. “It’s been a lot of hard work. We’ve put in a lot of hours into our preparation. (Defensive coordinator Brian) Van Gorder has done a really good job of bringing coach (Keith) Gilmore and myself along, learning the defense, applying the fundamentals of techniques that he wants to be used on game days. It’s been an amazing experience.
“There are a lot of long hours. It’s a lot of work, a lot of film study, a lot of attention to detail. There’s a lot of teaching, and a lot of learning, but I really, really enjoy the game. I really enjoy the X’s and O’s. I really enjoy the chess match of the game, being able to match personnel and match schemes. I really enjoy that aspect of the game. I also really enjoy learning from all of the different great coaches.
“One of the things that brought me to Notre Dame, is not only my connection of having played here and having so much love for the University, but getting to work under coach Brian Van Gorder. He has extensive knowledge as far as defense is concerned and as far as football is concerned. I’m really learning about the front, I’m really learning about the second level, the linebacker play, and the secondary play in his defense. That’s really valuable for my football IQ.”
Lyght loves coaching at the collegiate level.
“When you’re in college, you get to have more of a positive impact on young people’s lives,” Lyght says. “I really liked coaching in the professional ranks, but I was an assistant defensive backs coach. I didn’t have control of the room. Now, I get my own group. I’m in control of the room as far as my defensive backs are concerned. I get to put my imprint on the guys in the way they play as far as how we play, what our style of play is. I’m really excited about that.”
Having won a national championship at Notre Dame as a player, Lyght hopes to be able to have a part in bringing another national championship trophy to the Irish legacy as an assistant coach.
“My experience in winning a national championship at Notre Dame absolutely drives me to do what I can to help Notre Dame be one of the premiere programs in the country,” Lyght says. “We need to regain the crown. I think Coach Kelly has done a great job since he’s been here, getting to the national championship game, just really having the program trend nicely, always excelling, always trending upward.”