Arizona product Cole Luke searches for familiar finish

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Cole Luke had to leave to come back.

The only Arizona native on Notre Dame’s regionally diverse roster, Luke has played — and won — inside University of Phoenix Stadium before. Back in 2012, the Irish cornerback was a senior standout for Hamilton High School in suburban Chandler, which defeated Mountain Pointe, 31-16, to capture its seventh and most recent state title.

Luke — Hamilton’s heart — was a principal reason why.

“He was one of those guys that led by example. He wasn’t a huge talker,” said Hamilton head coach Steve Belles, who was a Notre Dame backup quarterback when the Irish won their last national championship in 1988, and in the Fiesta Bowl.

“He’s one of those kids that you wish you had more of ‘em. With kids like that, it’s tough to lose. That’s why he’s playing at Notre Dame. He’s just a good kid to be around. I think his teammates loved the guy.”

And for good reason. Luke was one of very few Hamilton players to dabble on both sides of the ball, affecting the game as both a receiver and defensive back. Belles, no stranger to talent, identified it in Luke early on.

“I think I knew it his freshman year when he was playing at Hamilton,” Belles said. “We have football practice with our freshmen in the morning and our other teams go in the afternoon, so I had an opportunity to really watch him. He just stood out. He did all the little things right. You knew he had an eye for football. He really understood the game. It wasn’t just because he was a good athlete.

“He really understood what he had to do on the field to make plays happen. If you’ve got that and you’ve got some athletic ability, which he has, it makes for a vicious combination.”

The proof was on display throughout the 2012 season, when Hamilton rebounded from an 0-2 start — including a regular-season loss to Mountain Pointe — to gain a measure of revenge in the state title game. Winning, for that team, wasn’t a matter of talent, but will.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a team start off a season 0-2 and win a championship, so they really kind of rallied together,” Belles said. “He was a big part of that senior group that said, ‘Enough’s enough. We’re not going to lose anymore.’ Coming back and beating Mountain Pointe in the finals was a nice capper.”

It might have been easy to assume, given his coach’s Irish roots, that Luke was swayed by Belles from the Arizona desert to the tip of the Golden Dome.

But the four-star recruit — now a 5-foot-11, 193-pound junior — chose South Bend of his own accord.

“I think at first it was a matter of football and where I could play early,” Luke said during a media session in the Phoenix area this week. “Then at the end, I started realizing that football’s not forever, so I need something that can help me fall back on, something positive and very valuable, which is a Notre Dame education. When I narrowed it down to those few teams, that’s what stood out the most.”

What didn’t stand out — at least, initially — was the much-maligned northern Indiana winters, which, like every other adjustment in the sizable leap from high school to college, took some getting used to.

“Nobody can just go from 90 and sunny every day to below zero,” Luke said with a knowing grin. “It was definitely a hard adjustment, but I think that’s part of the process. That’s what makes it special and fun. Getting out of your comfort zone is something that defines you as a man. I think it was a cool process, getting to stick through it.”

In 2014, Luke’s perseverance paid off. In suspended cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s absence, the then-sophomore exploded onto the scene, leading the Irish with four interceptions and 11 break-ups.

His junior season, one that has seen Notre Dame’s defense largely underwhelm, hasn’t gone as smoothly.

“Cole, I thought had a great developmental year last year,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said this week. “I don’t think he’s played as well as he hoped to this season. But he really understands the game. He’s very bright. He does a good job managing a game, adjusting during a game.

“But I think he would have liked to have been more productive. I think he had four interceptions a year ago. He had two this year. His production hasn’t been where I think he hoped it would be.”

And yet, there’s still time for a resurgence — especially on a familiar stage. At 1 p.m. on Friday, No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) will meet No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl. More specifically, Luke will lock horns with junior wide receiver Michael Thomas, who leads the Buckeyes with 709 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.

When the nephew of former Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson gets reacquainted with the University of Phoenix Stadium natural turf, his friends and family will be there to see it. Luke — even surrounded by a secondary missing established starters Russell, Devin Butler and Max Redfield — will hope to provide some déjà vu for Notre Dame.

“It’s awesome, honestly,” Luke said, sitting in a hotel roughly 25 miles from where he grew up. “It’s great to be able to play in front of my friends and family once again.

“It is kind of crazy that one of my last games here was a state championship in the same stadium. Honestly, I just want to have the same end result and I’ll be a happy guy.”

Notre Dame's Cole Luke (36) celebrates his interception during the second half of the Fighting Irish's win against the University of Massachusetts, Saturday, September 26, 2015 in South Bend. SBT Photo/ Becky Malewitz