- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Once the crowning of Alabama had become official, Robby Toma walked off the field first with his helmet still on. Theo Riddick struggled to hold back tears. Louis Nix insisted his team was not dominated in the 28-point loss.
Then there was Elijah Shumate, virtually clueless about this whole exercise.
Notre Dame's 42-14 loss in the Discover BCS National Championship ruined its perfect season, and it ruined Shumate's perfect streak.
A football career that saw three perfect prep seasons and a perfect regular season in his first year of college ball had become re-acquainted with the sting of defeat, Shumate's first after a 55-game winning streak.
"That was a tough loss," Shumate said of the title game. "They came out and they played hard and they really beat us. They handed us a big loss. Before the game I didn't think they were any way better than us. They played better than us, they were the better team that night and I definitely think we have a great team and that we were young. And we're still kind of young, but we're getting better and we're learning, so I think we're just going to keep working. Hopefully we'll see them again."
Not since the second game of his freshman season at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic had Shumate experienced a loss, as the next eight games that season and the three ensuing years at powerhouse Don Bosco Prep all culminated with state titles.
Now the player who made his mark as a nickelback in Year 1 with the Irish is transitioning to a full-time safety, the spot he was initially recruited to play. He has emerged from the crowded field to this spring to take first-team reps much of the way.
"He is what we thought he was in terms of a tackler," coach Brian Kelly said. "He’s a very good tackler, a sure tackler, he’s physical. He can play the safety position. I think [safeties] coach [Bob] Elliott's done a nice job with the learning curve. That’s certainly what this is all going to be about, and picking up the nuances. Matthias [Farley] has done a very good job in helping him. But I think the entire defense is helping as well. So he’s our guy back there, and he’s got to continue to learn. The spring has been very good for him. He’s going to have to continue to take steps forward in the summer."
The 6-foot, 213-pound rising sophomore has attacked the challenge after a year spent mostly getting his feet wet in the secondary, where coverage responsibilities were fairly straightforward and he had the luxury of working with three-year starter Zeke Motta.
This year brings other challenges, such as making calls and pre-snap adjustments, responsibilities he says he is slowly but surely growing more comfortable with.
Anything, it would seem, in order to return to his version of normalcy, which looks nothing like the one the Crimson Tide painted Jan. 7.
"It was really hard, I never want to have to go through that again," Shumate said. "But it's part of life. And it's part of growing up: You're going to win some, you're going to lose some. Go hard and learn from it."