SOUTH BEND — Before the Notre Dame football team’s defense can turn the corner, it has to settle on one first.
That’s the part of the process where the Irish are now, three weeks from the season opener.
Losing Sheldon Day on the line, Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt at linebacker and KeiVarae Russell at cornerback, has left Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder — starting his third season in South Bend — some pretty big holes to fill.
Even with those stars from last season, the Irish still ranked 45th in total defense, yielding 373 yards a game, and 57th in pass efficiency defense, giving up 2,562 yards and 18 touchdowns.
That has to get better for this season to have a chance at being special.
That’s where Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman come in.
A lot has been made about the Irish struggling with the installation of VanGorder’s scheme; that they hadn’t had a chance to recruit to that scheme. Well ... Crawford and Coleman are the faces of that talent acquisition plan. They’re the prototypes of corners in the system: Not huge (Crawford is 5-foot-9, 185 pounds; Coleman is 6-0, 195), very fast, and exceptional hitters.
They get where they’re supposed to be quickly, and come with a pop.
Crawford had the drive, physical tools and football IQ to challenge for the starting nickel (extra defensive back in passing situations) position in preseason camp last season. What nobody counted on was Crawford going down with a torn ACL in his right knee a couple weeks into the experiment, before the season began.
The possibilities were put on hold. Until now.
With Russell gone, Crawford is cross training between left cornerback — opposite Cole Luke — and nickel. When Crawford slides inside to nickel, Coleman — who saw limited action in all 13 games last season — takes over at corner.
This gives both plenty of opportunities to prove themselves in a hurry.
“We're going to play Shaun Crawford as much as we can, and if we've got to play him at corner and then move him in and then bring somebody else on the field; we think we have great depth at that position,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Nick Coleman's really going to come in his own. We've seen some great growth from Nick. Nick's got great speed. He just needs some confidence and we're starting to see that confidence grow with him. He's a guy you're going to see a lot more of.”
“I played (the nickel position) a little bit in high school,” said Crawford. “I was just a good fit (at Notre Dame). (Last year) we had KeiVarae (Russell) and Cole (Luke), a lot of talent at the corner. We really didn’t have the nickel. They threw me in there. I had to learn it quickly. I learned it fast.”
And then, the injury happened. That set the stage for this preseason camp.
“I love (the nickel position) because I can play all over the field: Blitz, cover, make tackles. I love it,” said Crawford, who added that he got beyond the mental and physical impact of the injury last spring. “The biggest difference (between corner and nickel) is the size of the receiver: Who my opponent will be. On the outside, I may get a guy who’s longer and bigger. It takes a certain technique. It’s hard because I had to learn it (in the spring) because I didn’t play much corner last year.”
Watch Shaun Crawford discuss his summer workouts:
As a nickel, Crawford would be playing near the middle of the field — without the help of the sidelines — often on a smaller, speedier slot receiver.
“Switching up technique and knowing how to do different things is hard,” he said. “I’ve watched a lot of film.”
Coleman, meanwhile, hardly distinguished himself in limited defensive duty and special teams work. He finished with five tackles and two passes defended. Kelly said they tried to “fast track” him, but it really didn’t work.
“The main thing is to be dependable,” Coleman said. “Be the guy that everyone knows, ‘Nick’s out there, we can lean on him.’
“At the end of the season last year, I took the mindset, ‘I’m going to do my best and take my spot (as a starter).’ That’s still my mindset. I haven’t changed.”
The scrutiny on the Irish defense hasn’t changed much, either. While the offense appears to be well-stocked with playmakers, the microscope will be focused on the daily progress of VanGorder’s unit.
“You don’t really worry about the scrutiny, people analyzing you,” Coleman said. “You just come to practice every day, work on something, and try to get better at that. I don’t look at too much outside the meeting room.
“Last year, I’d just go off into wonderland. It’s something you practice. I’ve done a better job at it.
“I’ve improved in maintaining focus throughout practice; in meeting rooms. Last year, as a freshman, it was easy to get distracted and think about your homework; think about your personal life. I’ve done a better job this year maintaining my focus in pretty much every phase.”
“We’re taking it upon ourselves … we’re going to compete every day,” Crawford said. “We’ve got some great receivers that we will compete against every day. That will get us ready for Texas.”
Two pieces of VanGorder’s puzzle are falling into place.