Notre Dame cornerback Cole Luke commands respect

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Three times within the first 10 minutes of his own availability with the media, Cole Luke was asked questions about fellow cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

Hardly seems fair.

Luke, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior, deserves better.

He may not be gifted with the same sort of dynamic personality as Russell. He spent last season adjusting to a prominent role while Russell was academically exiled. But Luke’s body of work — 48 tackles, 11 passes defended, and four interceptions — commands respect for the guy who will be a factor in the Irish secondary for the third straight season.

Russell and Luke share a kinship in their development at Notre Dame.

Russell was thrown to the wolves before he was ready in 2012, when projected starter Lo Wood went down with a season-ending injury. The freshman responded by starting all 13 games that magical season and playing well enough to keep from being a liability.

Luke was athletic enough to be part of the rotation at corner as a freshman. He had 15 tackles in 13 games in 2013. Last year, Luke was ready to have an enhanced role when Russell was dismissed from the university for academic reasons. Luke was the proverbial “next man in,” teaming primarily with Cody Riggs at corner.

“He plays at a higher level (from his freshman season),” said Russell. “Cole Luke is playing with so much more intensity and effort. If you play with the effort, you’re going to excel. His attitude is (that of) a guy who loves to compete.

“He had to grow up in a hurry, just like me. (Last year) when I got suspended, he was thrust into the role (as a starter). He had to play harder. He had to play like a true starting corner. He has the same mindset coming into it now.

“He had to step up and he did. That’s where he really matured.”

According to secondary coach Todd Lyght, Luke got a lot of mileage out of the natural talent with which he was gifted. Talent, though, can only go so far when it comes to defending the best receivers in the country on a regular basis.

“Cole is learning to play harder; more consistently,” Lyght said. “Cole is a very talented and gifted athlete. When he focuses on the fundamentals and the technique part of his game, he can play at a really, really high level. For Cole, (the key) is going to be playing consistently hard and playing with technique.”

“The scheme was hard to get used to when (defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder) arrived,” Luke said, recalling the transition last year. “We know it like the (back) of our hand now.

“A year ago, you get the call, do your job. Now, you get the call, you know (everyone’s) job, the d-line’s job; why everyone’s doing it; where you fit into the defense.

“Based on down and distance, the personnel that’s in, it’s easier to guess now what call’s coming your way.”

That’s a big part of what will make the Irish defense so effective this season. There is experience. The scheme has been in place. And the depth chart is loaded with playmakers, including Luke.

“We have a lot of experience,” Lyght said of his secondary. “The combination of (Russell) and Cole Luke, both being able to play the left and right side, being able to match up, will give us a lot of flexibility on defense.”

“We’re all pretty comfortable with each other,” Luke said. “Everybody has one job. First and foremost, it’s communication. We’re doing a pretty good job with that.

“It’s different (as a veteran). It seems like it was just the other day when I was sitting here talking as a freshman.

“I’ve gained a lot over the past couple years. There’s so much. I understand the game so much more. I know what’s coming my way; certain formations… What to expect out of the offense.

“We’re really deep, as far as corners and safeties go. The backups are expected to have as high a level of play as the starters do.”

“It’s good when you’ve got a guy who can play man-to-man so well on the other side,” Russell said, referring to Luke. “There’s not a guy that you have to ‘squat,’ play cover-two on that side all day long.

“Let’s say I don’t match up with the No. 1 receiver. I’ve got confidence that he can guard the No. 1 receiver as well. It’s good to have that sort of confidence on the back end (of the defense). You’re not worried about much.

“He plays at a high level. He’s developed so well, he’s going to make plays.”

“We’re flopping around, just so we don’t get too used to one side,” Luke said of his alignment with Russell. “If the game plan changes we may need to flip. We’re just going with the flow.

“Everything’s the same. We play both sides. There’s no difference.”

Same goes with the measure of preseason respect that’s doled out.

Russell’s got the name.

Luke’s out to prove he’s got the game.

Notre Dame’s Cole Luke, right, gets brought down by Northwestern’s Tony Jones after making an interception during the Notre Dame-Northwestern football game on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Jones received a penalty for grabbing Luke's face mask. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN