Notre Dame football: Luke grows up fast in secondary

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Unlike most freshman football players, Cole Luke can’t recall a “welcome to college” moment ever happening to him in practice.

For him, it takes place on game days. Over and over.

“If I was an offensive coordinator, I’d go after the freshman too,” the Notre Dame cornerback said matter-of-factly.

The embraceably weird thing about the 5-foot-11, 184-pound Chandler, Ariz., product is he kind of likes the attention.

“You have an opportunity to play the ball and make plays,” he said. “In high school, they never really threw to my side.”

It’s that kind of confidence/maturity vibe that helped Luke crack ND’s secondary rotation from the opening game against Temple, settling in as ND’s No. 1 option at nickel back and later becoming the first option off the bench when starting corners Bennett Jackson or KeiVarae Russell need a break. He has three tackles and a pass breakup to show for it.

Fellow freshman Devin Butler has leapfrogged older players too, to move into the two-deeps with Luke.

“I think you'll see a little bit more of (Luke) this weekend,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, whose 3-2 Irish face No. 22 Arizona State (3-1) in the Shamrock Series off-site home game Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“I think both of those freshman corners have shown not only the physical ability, but the mental capacity to be able to go in there and compete.”

Luke attributes his fast start to two mentors — his head coach at Hamilton High in Chandler, former Irish player Steve Belles, and his uncle, Darren Woodson, a five-time Pro Bowler during a 13-year career (1992-2004) as a safety with the Dallas Cowboys.

Woodson played linebacker for ASU in college, earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention three times after walking on as a freshman.

“He also had a big role in helping me pick what school I wanted to go to,” Luke said of Woodson.

Homestate Arizona State was never really in the picture, Luke said, because he was determined to go out of state. But Notre Dame trailed Texas and Oklahoma for much of the recruiting process.

“I just kind of realized it’s not all about football and it’s about what can help you out later on in life, “ Luke said. “And obviously Notre Dame is that kind of place.”

He also knew there might be an early opportunity to play at ND.

“I knew if played my game, it would work its way out,” he said.

Saturday, he and the rest of the secondary will get their biggest challenge, by far, to date this season. The Sun Devils are the first passing attack the Irish have faced that ranks higher than 70th nationally. ASU, led by redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, rank seventh in passing yards per game.

Luke is friends with ASU’s second-leading receiver, running back D.J. Foster and was a high school teammate of starting defensive lineman Jaxon Hood.

“But for me, it’s just another game,” he said. “That’s how I’m going to treat it. I’m going to do all the stuff that I do against any other team.”

He’s even oblivious to the special Shamrock Series uniforms, a rare person who doesn’t have a strong opinion about the non-traditional garb one way or another.

“They’re nice?” he said with a shrug. “But it’s not going to depict the way I play or the rest of the team.”

Notre Dame's Cole Luke during the game between Notre Dame and Purdue on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette. Notre Dame beat Purdue 31-24. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN