Lesar: Todd Lyght has Notre Dame cornerbacks ready for a revival

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Accountability is a new focus for the Irish secondary this spring.

Last season taught the Notre Dame football team how important it can be.

It didn’t take long for adversity to get entrenched within the confines of the Irish program. Two of their better cornerbacks – Nick Watkins (arm) and Shaun Crawford (Achilles) – had their seasons end almost before they started.

That left a group of freshmen – Julian Love, Troy Pride, Jr., and Donte Vaughn – to be key contributors alongside senior Cole Luke. They were a talented bunch of freshmen — but they were freshmen.

“You have to be patient with the young guys,” said Irish secondary coach Todd Lyght. “You’re playing quality teams with good athletes and good schemes. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. 

“Through all the adversity, the guys faced it the right way. Their mindset was good. The maturity is going to be critical. I love our attitude.”

When a team goes 4-8, with seven of those losses decided on the final possession, a good session in front of the mirror is required. Lyght, whose duties are now focused completely on the corners in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system (Elko has the safeties), said the examination was enlightening.

Last year’s secondary yielded 2,357 passing yards (193 of 313, 62 percent, for opponents) and 14 touchdowns along with eight interceptions (tying for 93rd in the country in picks). The Irish ranked 79th in pass efficiency defense and 60th in third-down defense (39 percent).

“For (the secondary), it was not making the play in the critical moment of the game,” Lyght said of his analysis of last season. “We have to have confidence – defensively as a unit, and individually – that when it is my turn to step up and make a play, I have to make that play. 

“Last year, with a lot of young guys, it’s the mindset ‘Oh, somebody else might make that play.’ It’s not, ‘I’m going to make that play to help the team win.’ 

“With the confidence, with the (physical) development off the field, the scheme, on the field fundamentals and techniques, then improving our individual play and our group play, we have a lot more confidence.

“That helps that, when the game’s on the line, and the critical moments come up, we’re able to make the play and win the game.”

That’s a lengthy definition of the word accountability. 

Last year’s bad news was that two key players were hurt and three freshmen had to play major roles. This year’s good news is that two key players will be healthy and three freshmen are back with plenty of experience.

“It was a growing experience for everybody,” Lyght said. “The time on the field was well spent. Our strength and conditioning program has done a great job of developing these guys in the offseason. You could see their bodies changing. We’ll have much more physical play in the back end because of that development.

“Last year was a tough learning curve for everybody. In order to get to a point where you’re going to play at a high level, you’re going to go through some growing pains. We did last year.

“It was a valuable learning experience. Those guys can take that experience and move forward in the right direction.

“We can be a pretty good defense moving forward.”

Not only did those rookies experience disappointment in seven nailbiters, but they handled the upheaval that followed on the Irish staff, as well.

“Scheme-wise, we stayed aggressive with what we wanted to do,” Lyght said of how the season played out. “It was tough with the transition of the coordinator (Brian VanGorder) not being there (fired after the Duke loss), then to Greg Hudson and Mike Elston taking over. Statistically, we improved in every category, but we weren’t getting the results in the win column. 

“The young guys (in the secondary) pressed through, never lost faith, continued to work hard and continued to get better.”

That’s gotta count for something, right? Look at the bright side: What are the odds anyone at Notre Dame goes through another season like that anytime soon?

Accountability should keep it from repeating.

Notre Dame defensive backs coach Todd Lyght runs drills during spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ