Notebook: Jeff Burris making impression on Cole Luke, Notre Dame secondary
SOUTH BEND — In affirming the people and things that helped inspire Cole Luke to make a quantum improvement in his game from last season, one of the first names out of the Notre Dame cornerback’s mouth is Jeff Burris.
Burris, a former Notre Dame All-America defensive back and first-round NFL draft pick, was hired by Irish head coach Brian Kelly this offseason as a defensive analyst. By the letter of the NCAA rule that defines an analyst position, Burris can’t do any on-field coaching or even watch film with the Irish players.
But the 44-year-old Burris can, and apparently is, making an impact as a resource beyond defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and position coach Todd Lyght.
“Having him around every day is providing a mentor-like environment for a number of our players,” Kelly said Tuesday as he previewed Saturday night’s showdown between 18th-ranked Notre Dame (1-1) and 12th-ranked Michigan State (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
“Just having Jeff in the building on a day-to-day basis is a bonus for us, that he can sit down and have dinner with them and talk about experiences. Those are invaluable.”
Burris is also apparently impacting the other members of the otherwise inexperienced Irish secondary. Luke, with 28 career collegiate starts, has 13 more than the entire healthy, eligible Notre Dame roster of cornerbacks and safeties combined. That includes six starts for sixth-year grad senior safety Avery Sebastian when he was at Cal.
As Luke himself tries to help shepherd them into expanding roles and responsibility, his own strong start has created some draft buzz for the 5-foot-11, 195-pound senior.
“I think he’s a little bit underrated,” said NFL draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “I think back to two years ago when KeiVarae Russell was suspended and (Luke) had to kind of face a murder’s row of wide receivers — and he held his own.
“I think he took a little bit of a step back last year, but he has advanced his game a lot this season, and he checks a lot of the boxes. He’s a pretty good athlete. He’s got a lot of experience. He’s got good size. I think Cole Luke is one of the top five or six senior cornerbacks in the country.
“And that’s high praise this year, because among the seniors, cornerback might be the strongest position.”
The attrition at the defensive back positions since August, four players with starting experience each either off the active roster for good this season or in some form or limbo, hasn’t prompted Kelly to consider borrowing from the offense to boost numbers.
“If you look at the guys, we got Donte Vaughn in the game (Saturday),” he said. “He was able to get some work. We activated (Spencer) Perry this week in special teams to get him some more work at the safety position, another freshman.
“Nicco Fertitta has taken a lot of work there. We think we've got enough depth at the positions to not need to make any wholesale changes at that position.”
Winds of change?
The general assumption was that the three new structures rising over the existing rim of Notre Dame Stadium would hold the noise better than in the formerly open bowl. Saturday’s Michigan State game might be a better test case than last week’s Nevada game.
But Kelly did notice a significant shift in the status quo in another facet.
“I think what it does is changes the wind pattern for sure,” he said. “It's a swirling wind now that changes, and it's unpredictable.”
Notre Dame should know by Wednesday whether its most experienced and explosive receiver — senior Torii Hunter Jr. — will be available for Saturday night’s game.
Hunter hasn’t played since suffering a concussion late in the third quarter of ND’s 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas on Sept. 4. He was slated to go through a controlled full practice Tuesday evening, the last step in his concussion protocol.
In the meantime, the Irish got significant contributions Saturday from freshman receivers Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool.
Stepherson had three catches for 35 yards and a TD. Claypool had one catch for six yards, one rush for nine yards and two special teams tackles. The third freshman receiver on the roster, Jovan McKinley, made his ND debut against Nevada but did not catch a pass.
“We’re trying to use what each one of those young guys kind of came in with as a strength and try to use that in our offense to try and help propel the whole unit forward,” Irish associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said, “instead of trying to put too much on their plate too early.
“Let’s just kind try to perfect the things they’re already good at and use those tools that they brought with them, so maybe experience (won’t be)as much of a factor early in the season.”