Notre Dame CB Shaun Crawford is more than comeback story

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Once Shaun Crawford got past the understandable heartbreak of the torn ACL in his right knee last August, the Notre Dame cornerback threw logic at it.

If he had let the receiver beat him on the play … Maybe if he had covered the receiver differently …

And as the Notre Dame injury toll accumulated to mind-boggling proportions, he studied other college football teams to try to figure out why fate or luck or playing surface or something else produced such different outcomes.

As captivating as the emotional side of his comeback is, the science-and-faith cocktail that drives him now is so much more defining of who the redshirt freshman from Lakewood, Ohio, actually is.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” Crawford weaves into answers about overcoming adversity, and not just to queries about an injury-truncated freshman season.

That he studies the reason, grows from the reason, ultimately trusts the reason in just about every circumstance adds an intriguing layer to a player who translates so well pure track speed into football ability.

“Very smart player, instinctive player,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of Crawford.

And competitive. And tactical.

When the team ran 40-yard dashes during some combine-style testing just ahead of the start of spring practice, wide receiver Corey Holmes recorded the fastest time (4.39 seconds), followed by wide receiver Torii Hunter (4.41).

Crawford, expected to vie for the swiftest time himself — based in part on an assessment by the fastest guy on last year’s roster, Will Fuller — deferred his 40 to later in the calendar year, when his surgically repaired knee presumably wouldn’t be barking and when he wasn’t required to wear a brace on it anymore.

“I would say there are times I feel I am full speed now,” Crawford said, “and there are sometimes toward the end of practice, when my knee’s kind of getting sore, that I maybe drift off to 85, 90 percent.”

Oddly, you don’t get caveats about his inexperience, about growing pains, about mental hurdles from defensive backs coach Todd Lyght or others about Crawford.

And that’s what sets the table for thoughts that maybe a Notre Dame defense with heavy roster turnover really can be better than the veteran one that wobbled to a No. 45 national standing in total defense last season.

Could the wave of young players like Crawford, safety Devin Studstill, defensive end Daelin Hayes, linebacker Asmar Bilal all simultaneously rise to the occasion and beyond?

Kelly keeps beating that drum, and Crawford is right there with him when it comes to a secondary that through 11 spring practices projects three new starters, two of whom could end up seeing their first college action Sept. 4 at Texas.

“Almost all of us are young, and we’re all trying to make each other better,” he said. “I think we have a chance to be the best secondary in the country, because we put in the work.

“Constant effort, constant meetings, constant film. I think just throughout this spring, we’ve gotten better each day, and I think that will continue throughout the summer and throughout the fall.”

Crawford was such an indispensable piece going into the 2015 season, as a situational nickel back, that coordinator Brian VanGorder largely junked the notion of playing it in large doses once the true freshman was lost for the season.

The Irish are cross training senior Cole Luke, ND’s most experienced starter at any position, at nickel to have a viable Plan B in place this time. Crawford, meanwhile, has performed well enough that he’s heavily in the mix to emerge as an every-down player in 2016.

That doesn’t mean Kelly won’t kick him inside to play nickel when the Irish go to the five- and six-defensive back defensive looks.

“Corners play out by the numbers,” Kelly said. “They’ve got a friend with them. It’s called the sideline. A guy that plays inside has got to understand the field a lot better, has got to have an instinct to play inside.

“He’s got to have really good speed, because he’s got to cover guys coming across the field, going vertical. And he possesses that speed and instinct, so he’s a little bit unique in that sense.”

Crawford is unique as well in that he went out for the Lakewood St. Edward High lacrosse team, at the urging of his best friend, and played in his first game without actually knowing the rules. And he said, the lateral movement and strategy required to be a good defensive player in that sport, ultimately helped his football.

Once he arrived at Notre Dame last June, he delved into the science of playing nickel, knowing there was a need for a player to emerge in that role.

“I played some inside-man, nickel a lot in high school, so my high school coaches prepared me very well,” Crawford said.

“I would take time out of my day before going to bed just to watch a lot of film,” he said. “I’d take notes, go on the field on weekends, practice a bit. So I took it serious. I took it into my own hands.

“I felt like whatever happened, I was in control of it.”

And when the injury caused him to lose control, Crawford studied more, got stronger mentally and got stronger in the weight room.

“It definitely made me a better person, taught me more about the game and more about myself,” he said, “and I’m really excited for the future.”

And to think he almost didn’t have a chance to realize that future, at Notre Dame.

The summer before Crawford’s junior year in high school, he took an unofficial visit to Notre Dame. Bob Diaco, now the head coach at Connecticut, was ND’s defensive coordinator at the time.

Diaco, with some success to back up his philosophy, rarely recruited a player out of a predetermined physical profile. And he liked cornerbacks with height and long arms.

Crawford, at 5-foot-9, was too much of a physical outlier.

“He wasn’t really interested in me,” Crawford said. “But I left this place in love, hopeful things were going to change and I’d get an offer one day.”

Crawford then committed to Michigan. But once Diaco left and VanGorder came aboard, the re-recruiting began.

“I came up for a visit, and it was even better than it was before,” he said. “So everything happens for a reason. I’m very grateful with the blessings I received, and I couldn’t be any happier.”

Happy that his knee already took a shot in practice this spring, that only boosted his confidence once he got past the fleeting bolt of fear. Happy to experience what extreme fatigue feels like again. Happy to feel how much his head hurts when he puts a helmet on.

“So like all those little things excite me more than anything,” he said. “I’m not even looking long term. Last year has taught me just take every day and make the most of it. And that’s what I’m trying to do now.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Shaun Crawford runs drills during Notre Dame spring football practice on Friday, April 1, 2016, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)