Notre Dame CB Cole Luke finds his voice with young secondary

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Once upon a time, a wise ol’ football coach with wire-rimmed glasses and a lisp had words of advice for Notre Dame fans confronted with a predicament like they currently face.

“Nothing is ever as good as it seems; or as bad as it seems,” was the way Lou Holtz would try to talk fans off the ledge. “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

The truth will likely be revealed sometime late Saturday afternoon, when Notre Dame opens at home against Nevada.

The truth about the Irish defense has been debated at length since Notre Dame yielded 50 points and 517 yards in its season-opening loss to Texas last Sunday. The most damning part of that performance were the explosive plays that have haunted the Irish since Brian VanGorder took over the defense.

The Longhorns completed five passes of at least 19 yards, including one of 68 and another of 72. Add to that a drop on a wide-open pass attempt five yards behind the defense and about 50 yards downfield, and an interference call on another heave, and the Irish secondary took a beating.

Sophomore corner Nick Coleman was picked on relentlessly by the Texas passing game. Finally in the third quarter, Shaun Crawford, another sophomore, was moved from nickel to corner and Julian Love, a true freshman, was brought in at nickel.

Add to that the fact that freshmen Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott saw plenty of snaps at safety, and the Irish youth movement can be downright alarming.

Role model

That charged senior cornerback Cole Luke with the task of supervising the “kiddie corps.”

“It was a role I wasn’t very comfortable with at first at the beginning of camp,” the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Luke said of being a vocal role model. “(The coaches) have been pushing (the leadership) on me so much that I’m getting used to it.

“I tell the young guys all the time, ‘I’m here for whatever you need me for.’ Now I can tell how guys take coaching differently. Some guys, you can’t yell at. Some guys, you need to put a foot in their (butt).

“It’s actually interesting to see how different people take different coaching. I think I’ve done a good job handling that situation.

“I’m not the type of guy who’s going to yell at you constantly. I’m not a yeller. If you’re doing something wrong, I’ll call you over and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ You get it wrong again, that’s when we’re going to have a problem.”

Coleman needed a little extra attention. Given his bruised ego and tattered confidence by being a guy with a bullseye on his back, Luke has made a special effort to keep from losing him.

“As a secondary, there are going to be ups and downs,” Luke said. “We bounced back like we should have. We had a few plays over our head, which is what we didn’t want.

“(When problems happened) your eyes were wrong; just a lack of focus, really.

“(Young guys) can dwell on a loss as much as they want to, but if they do that, they’ll be so far behind Nevada. We all let (the loss) go.

“We don’t have time to sulk. We assessed the film; we corrected everything. We made sure we went through it thoroughly. We’re moving on.

“It’s going to happen. ‘If you mess up, we’re the most exposed position. You can’t take that lightly. It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter what the media says, they can’t do our job. It doesn’t matter what Texas says, they can’t do our job either. You’ve gotta battle with yourself.’”

Tackle woes

When head coach Brian Kelly assessed the problems he saw from his team, he agreed with what many fans saw as a shortcoming: Poor tackling.

“Everything that we do we expect from week one to week two to see big improvements,” said Kelly. “You're going through camp and there's not a lot of live tackling. You're trying to tackle as much as you can on objects that are not 250 pounds running at you. So we'll spend more time on tackling, but we expect that the tackling will get better and better as our guys settle into it defensively.”

It better improve.

“(Poor tackling) was disappointing because we work on it a lot,” said Luke. “You can never practice it too much. We’ve worked a lot on it this week. (Texas) took advantage of us at times. I can’t harp on it too much. We’ve gotta move forward.”

One of the few Irish defenders that could be counted on for a solid stick was middle linebacker Nyles Morgan. In his debut as the absolute man in the middle, he responded with 13 stops.

“Our defensive line was pretty solid and Nyles Morgan was solid,” Kelly said. “Moving Crawford (who had a key interception) out to corner is going to solidify things.

“The safeties, we knew, were going to be young and inexperienced. It's a matter of them needing more time and they're going to get better each and every week because I'm looking at the personnel that we have and we will evolve to putting those guys into a position that best fits their abilities. That's what we have to do as coaches.”

Custom fit

There’s a lot to take under consideration when trying to custom a defensive philosophy to the available talent. It might take some bend by the coaches. Nobody ever succeeded by trying to cram the square peg into the round hole.

“We have to say, ‘OK, what can these guys do, and what can't they do?’ Kelly said of his collection of young colts on the defensive side of the ball. “Let's maximize what their strengths are. Instead of saying, ‘Hey, we love this, we want to do this, we want to do that, we can't do those things in certain situations.’ Knowing our personnel, moving forward and accentuating things defensively that they do well.”

The youth, athleticism and high ceiling of potential give hope that, yes, maybe this can get better before the season goes down the commode.

Improvement has to start Saturday.

“As a secondary, we had our young guys get their feet wet a little bit,” said Luke, who tried to be as politically correct as a veteran could be. “Studstill has a little bit more of an athletic nature (than the other safeties). Shaun’s a great corner. I love playing with him.”

Luke wasn’t shy about admitting that flushing the frustration from the loss at Texas hasn’t been easy.

“I’m still (angry),” he said. “Everyone’s still (angry). The only way you can get rid of that disappointment and negative energy is go out this Saturday and get a ‘W’.

“You can’t take anything for granted. We don’t want 0-2 to happen.”

“After the (Texas) game, everybody’s hurt; everybody’s down,” Morgan said. “Monday and Tuesday, everybody was back in Nevada mode. Once the game plan came in, we put (the loss) to the side.

“I learned that we’re gonna fight; we’re not gonna give up. If we’re down, the guys behind me and in front of me are going to fight to the very end.

“(Nevada) is a good base, fundamental, offensive team. They don’t do much that’s unique. If we stick to our concepts we’ll be fine.”

The only way it’s going to get better is for focus to trump frustration.

And then the truth will come out.

Lou said so.

Notre Dame cornerback Cole Luke (36) and linebacker Nyles Morgan (5) celebrate a play against Texas during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)