Beyond standout safety Kyle Hamilton, Notre Dame has relied on an unexpected bunch in the secondary.
The other key contributors among the group include a sixth-year senior who has suffered three season-ending injuries, a true freshman who was a three-star recruit and a graduate transfer who did not join the Irish until this past summer.
Those respective defensive backs — Shaun Crawford, Clarence Lewis and Nick McCloud — likely will have to defy expectations again when No. 4 Notre Dame (10-1) challenges No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Friday (4 p.m. EDT on ABC).
The Crimson Tide feature an offense that ranks at or near the top in most of the major statistical categories. Quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris and wide receiver DeVonta Smith each finished among the top five in Heisman Trophy votes.
So slowing down only one of Harris or Smith may not be enough for the Irish to win. And Notre Dame’s secondary will need to limit chunk plays from Alabama’s vaunted passing attack.
“Coach has been preaching just to do your job,” Hamilton said. “All 11 guys need to do their job and stay within ourselves. If I do that and all the 10 guys do that, we can take care of the run game and the passing game at the same time.”
Crawford’s job significantly changed after he moved from field cornerback to strong safety in preseason camp. Last season, Crawford’s role called for him to cover smaller, shiftier receivers on the wide side of the field. At safety, Crawford now must account for receivers of all speeds and sizes while offering more run support.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Crawford has struggled to cover larger receivers and tackle in open space at times. But the Irish captain brings experience and a veteran presence to the back end. After all of his injury setbacks, Crawford managed to lead this defense in total snaps (600) through the first 11 games, per Pro Football Focus.
“Going to safety is just seeing the whole field, reading different keys and making sure I’m communicating to the defense,” said Crawford on the other responsibilities that come with the position. “So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been a fun challenge. I think it’s helped my game overall.”
Those duties were even more important in Notre Dame’s biggest games.
In the ACC Championship Game against Clemson, Hamilton left with an ankle injury. Against North Carolina, Hamilton was ejected for targeting. Crawford’s role naturally expanded on both occasions.
In the first game against the Tigers last month, the Irish needed Crawford to help Lewis. They turned to Lewis after junior corner TaRiq Bracy allowed a 53-yard touchdown catch from receiver Cornell Powell. The play came on their second defensive possession of the game.
“I had no idea that our coaching staff had plans for him to play that game,” Crawford said. “He was thrown out there and (had to be) ready to go. It was challenging for me just because I had to step up my communication a bit and make sure he had the calls and make sure he was ready to go.”
Lewis showed improvement after that game. He continued to alternate with Bracy before emerging as the full-time starting field corner against Syracuse on Dec. 5. He recorded a game-high 12 tackles against the Orange.
“He’s grown so much in his time here,” Crawford said. “Now he’s come along. He’s into the playbook. He knows what’s going on. So he’s gotten his reps up. And he’s very comfortable on the field now.”
Boundary has been the steadier cornerback position for Notre Dame in 2020. McCloud brought experience and leadership as a two-year starter and captain for N.C. State. But he played just two games for the Wolfpack last season after suffering a partially torn MCL in his left knee.
McCloud still secured the starting boundary role almost immediately after joining the Irish program in June.
“The way I was raised, the way I was built, along with having captain experience from N.C. State,” McCloud said, “is really what made the adjustment easy for me.”
Before this season, Lewis was an afterthought. Crawford was a cornerback. McCloud was on a different team. Hamilton, who was named third-team All-America on Monday, helped make their transitions easier.
Jones, the nation’s leader in passer-efficiency rating (202.3) and completion percentage (76.5), said he will need to know where Hamilton is at all times. He compared him to Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed.
“He’s all over the tape,” Jones said. “You see him everywhere. He’s blitzing, he’s in the back end, hiding pressures then coming or covering people. So he’s a really lengthy guy. He understands football. You can tell he really studies his part and knows exactly what to do.”
How Notre Dame deploys Hamilton should indicate what this defense will look to accomplish. He could shadow Smith in double-coverage. He could be more active against the run. Or Hamilton could do some of both.
"His presence is felt," Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. "I think teams will plan around him, his length, his range. He fills up a lot of windows.
"Obviously he's proven over his career to have the ability to attack the ball and make plays. So that obviously is impactful just from the start. When he's playing at his best, he becomes a difference-maker for us."
Covering Smith and Co. certainly won’t fall all on Hamilton. Crawford, Lewis and McCloud will need to hold their own in one-on-one matchups and in coverage overall. They still have something to prove.
Now is their chance.
“Being able to compete with a player like DeVonta Smith and the other great players they have is just a great opportunity,” McCloud said. “I love to compete more than anything.”