Even as a 23-year-old, sixth-year senior, Shaun Crawford still has college football dreams.
One of those will come true Saturday as Crawford takes the field as Notre Dame’s starting strong safety in the season opener against Duke (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
“I never thought I’d be starting as a safety,” Crawford said Tuesday. “It was always in the back of my mind like a dream that I had because some of my favorite players play safety.”
Crawford had a list of safeties ready to offer, because if you’re a 5-foot-9 defensive back with a dream of playing safety, you’re going to need some role models to believe it’s possible.
“Like Tyrann Mathieu, Ed Reed, Troy Polamolu, Budda Baker,” Crawford said. “Those are some of the people I look up to that I try to model my game after. Although they’ve been safeties most of their career, I try to take the physicality, the instincts and the playmaking skills that they have and put it into my game wherever I am on the field.”
It’s no coincidence that none of those four players are 6 feet tall. Reed (5-11) and Polamolu (5-10) are Pro Football Hall of Famers. Mathieu (5-9) and Baker (5-10), active players for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Arizona Cardinals, respectively, have been first-team All-Pros.
Former teammate Alohi Gilman (5-10) can also provide some inspiration for Crawford. Head coach Brian Kelly pointed to Gilman as a model that made Notre Dame’s coaching staff comfortable with moving Crawford to safety.
“The safety position — and I think we have a really good model to look at — is about instincts,” Kelly said. “It’s about toughness. It’s about versatility. And we just need to look back to last year with Alohi Gilman.”
Gilman, a sixth-round NFL Draft pick in May, is competing for playing time in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Chargers, but he’s still connected to his former teammates in South Bend. He has no worries about Crawford’s ability to play safety at his height.
It’s never been a concern for himself, so why should it be for Crawford?
“I’m going to be honest, when I’m out there I don’t think of it as a disadvantage,” Gilman said. “There are a lot of guys in the league, guys who I’m playing with now, who are the same height as me and succeeded on a high level.
“When I’m out there — and I’m sure it’s the same attitude for Shaun — I don’t think about size. You could be as tall as you want, but if you don’t have the instincts and the intellect to put yourself in the right position, you’re not going to make plays.”
Sticking at safety
Shaun Crawford figured he would be a backup plan at safety.
Taking reps at the position in preseason camp wasn’t new for him. Last year, Crawford became an emergency option of sorts at safety. With Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Kyle Hamilton sharing time at safety last season, Crawford wasn’t needed. So he stayed at cornerback on game days and started eight games on the outside.
In the age of COVID-19, backup plans are absolutely necessary on a football roster. But as the practices continued from August to September, Crawford shifted from Plan B or C to Plan A.
“I was there maybe a little longer than they expected,” Crawford said. “I got comfortable there. I started making some plays. I was communicating the defense. I was just being a vocal leader back there.
“I kind of felt at home back there. The coaches saw the same thing. With my playmaking ability and my ability to tackle, we all thought it was a great opportunity for me.”
The permanence of Crawford’s move to safety surprised the coaching staff too.
“He won that position over,” Kelly said. “We didn’t come into camp expecting him to win it. We came into camp expecting him to be a placeholder at that position. He came out and won that position. We are a better football team with Shaun playing the position.”
Maybe Gilman was the least surprised of anyone.
“He’s a versatile athlete. He’s super instinctual, a very smart player and he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty,” Gilman said. “Shaun’s a guy that nobody had a question mark whether he could play any position. He played a little bit of safety last year as well. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be able to take that role and succeed.”
Though Crawford’s height may not be much different than his NFL role models and Gilman, he’s not quite as heavy as the others mentioned. Matheiu has 10 pounds on him at 190. Gilman played at 202 pounds last year for the Irish.
Crawford’s injury history will always be a concern regardless of his position. He missed the 2015 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, all but two games in 2016 with a torn achilles, all of the 2018 season with a torn ACL in his left knee and missed two games last season with a dislocated elbow.
If Crawford makes it through the 2020 season from beginning to end as a starter, he would double his career starts. Through five seasons, Crawford has played in 25 games and started 11 of them.
Crawford knows enough safeties to rely on for guidance at this point. He’s played with several throughout his career at Notre Dame. In the past few weeks, he reached out to Gilman, Elliott and Nicco Fertitta for some pointers.
Crawford leaned heavily on Gilman and Elliott last year when he took practice reps at safety.
“They were great while they were here getting me up to speed, teaching me all the calls and teaching me all the reads,” Crawford said. “Still now when I will send them some film, we’ll talk ball. We’re in a group chat still. I’ll shoot them any questions that I have. They’ll shoot me some videos of what they’re doing and what they did when they were here. It’s good to bounce ideas off each other and give film back and forth with one another.”
For Gilman, offering Crawford advice feels a bit out of place. When Gilman transferred to Notre Dame in 2017, he looked at Crawford as a mentor. Now he’s returning the favor.
“Shaun’s been around this game for a long time, so I’m not really worried if he’ll be able to handle the things that are going to be thrown at him,” Gilman said. “I’m really just telling him about sticking to the details of the game plan. Being able to have a balance of that as well as using your instincts. I’m excited to see him play, and I think it will be a good result.”
Crawford is still filling the role of mentor at Notre Dame too. This week, he was named one of five captains for the season. It’s only fitting that the player who’s been through the most in his Notre Dame career serves as a captain in this unpredictable year.
“This whole year honestly has been a tough one for all of us,” Crawford said. “It’s been a different one. So my leadership had to step up. I answered the call, and I was just grateful to be in this leadership role. We have a lot of young guys in the DB room, and I was able to lead them first and carry on to the next group of the defense and talk to whoever else needed me.”
Saturday could be the start of a storybook ending to Crawford’s Notre Dame career. He’s been through the frustration of a 4-8 season. He’s witnessed the disappointment of a lopsided loss in the College Football Playoff to wreck a perfect season. Along the way, he tallied 66 tackles, seven pass breakups, four interceptions, 2.5 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
Crawford has certainly put in the time to deserve going out on a high note. Fulfilling the dream of playing safety seems like a good place to start.
“It’s a pretty satisfying thing to have a guy like that who comes back year after year, puts in all the work and gets rewarded like that,” Gilman said. “He’s more than deserving. I’m super happy for him.”