Notre Dame CB Shaun Crawford cherishes chance to play, make plays

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Big plays made at big moments only four games into the season have offered Notre Dame junior cornerback Shaun Crawford an opportunity to feel like he’s finally made it to college football’s big stage.

Like this is his moment. Like he’s arrived.

Crawford won’t embrace any of it. Not yet. As well as he’s played to date with seven tackles, two interceptions, two passes broken up, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble while working as the nickel back in coverage situations, there’s still so much more to do. To show. To accomplish. Individually. Collectively.

Now is no time to stop and savor the early success, especially since Crawford has seen the other side – the darker side – of playing college football.

Like what it means to miss a season while rehabilitating a shredded anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, torn during fall camp of 2015. The hours. The pain. The self-doubt. Everything. Or what it’s like to come all the way back from that injury, then go make a play two games into your 2016 season, only to have your left Achilles tendon rupture. Another season wiped out. More surgery. More rehab. More dark hours of self-doubt. Of trying to find the meaning of it all through Scripture, and still understand that God has a bigger plan.

A plan that Crawford believes will work out.

Crawford has become the talk of the Irish defense. He makes plays. He grabs interceptions. Forces fumbles. Has a nose for the football. Is always around it. Always seeking out ways to make a difference, like he did last week at Spartan Stadium. His work — including a strip and fumble recovery to prevent a score in the victory over Michigan State — earned him a game ball and continued praise from one of his strongest supporters, head coach Brian Kelly.

Crawford embraces it all while reminding himself to never, ever, ever take anything about this game for granted. It all can be taken away from you in a snap.

He’s seen it. Twice. He doesn’t ever want to see it again.

“This opportunity comes and goes and I’m just trying to make the most of it right now,” Crawford said earlier this week in advance of Saturday’s home game against Miami (Ohio). “I want to cherish these moments, the moments that I didn’t have for two years.”

Small steps

Those moments have rushed his direction each of the last two weeks. Even when fall camp opened, and Crawford was given a third chance to show what he could do, he wasn’t very confident. It had been close to a year since he had last been on the football field for a game after limping off with the popped Achilles in the first quarter of the home opener against Nevada. He hadn’t covered a receiver down the field. Hadn’t flooded the line of scrimmage in run support. Hadn’t made a tackle or cleared his mind of any clutter and just gone out there and cut it all loose.

He got a tiny taste of it on a couple snaps against Temple. That helped him get his football legs under him and his mind right. A little bit more work the following week against Georgia also helped, but there was still something missing about his game.

Crawford hadn’t been tested, hadn’t been expected to make a big play when a play needed to be made. When would that happen? How would he respond? Could he respond? And if he didn’t, well, what then?

That last question didn’t require a response. Failure is not an option. Not in his vocabulary. Despite the injury setbacks of the last two years, Crawford remained confident in his abilities. If there was a play waiting to be made somewhere along the line, he was going to make it.

Working in nickel coverage against Boston College, Crawford covered freshman wideout Kobay White down the far side of the field, looked back for the ball, eyed it in the air and then wrestled it away from White.

It was like a whole new play-making/confidence world had opened for him that afternoon in New England. This was Crawford’s opportunity to step into it. He did.

“When I got that first pick, it was like, ‘All right, now it’s time to go,’” he said. “I got so much confidence after that.”

And, after a game in which he finished with two tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery, Crawford got much love from his two biggest supporters – his mother (Sabrina) and father (John), who made the 12-hour, 640-mile drive across Interstate 90 from their home in Lakewood, Ohio to see their son’s big moment. They had shared his pain, his tears, his faith over the last two years, so it was only fitting that they were there to share his joy.

“I’m so happy that it happened while they were there,” he said.

Not half as happy as his head coach, the guy who personally took over his recruitment out of St. Edward’s High School and made sure he was going to Notre Dame and nowhere else. Not even when he was an original commitment to Michigan. Didn’t matter that Crawford lacked the size of a textbook cover corner. Size aside, Crawford had attributes that you just couldn’t teach. Kelly saw it, even if former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco never could get past the 5-foot-9 1/8 height.

Crawford first visited Notre Dame during his sophomore year in high school. Turned off almost immediately by the kid’s size, Diaco treated him almost like a door-to-door salesman interrupting his family’s dinner. He paid Crawford little attention.

“It,” Crawford remembered, “wasn’t a good visit.”

Kelly was the opposite. He loved being around Crawford. Loved to talk football. To talk current events. Just to talk. About life. Family. Faith. Anything. Crawford was as passionate about those topics as he was about playing corner.

There was something about the kid that Kelly couldn’t let go. He just had IT, whatever IT was. It was something that Kelly saw on the field, when he watched Crawford block three extra points in one high school game. It was something he had off the field. With teammates. Coaches. Trainers. Kelly had to find a place for him somewhere on the team.

Crawford became a gotta-get guy for Kelly.

“God has a plan,” Crawford said. “Fortunately, the (defensive coordinator) at that time is no longer here. That’s why I think I’m here. Everything happens for a reason.”

This reason as simple — Kelly had to have him.

“He’s got a huge football IQ,” Kelly said. “He’s always got a great attitude, a spiritual center that attracts many people. Just a great attitude. People are attracted to people like that.”

Often upbeat

Kelly classified Crawford as a glass “half full, not half empty” guy. But the glass was empty a bit during those injury years. Though he rarely missed a workout and was almost always the first one at the Guglielmino Center for treatment or workouts, Crawford still had some dark days, days when he wasn’t sure all the work and faith and trust in the training staff was going to pay off.

Especially after the second injury. He had worked so hard to rehab the knee and return to peak playing shape, only to have to do it all again with an even more serious injury for someone whose speed and quickness is essential. That time took a toll.

“I was so down all the time last year,” he said. “Not mentally down, but physically. It wasn’t fun.”

A lot of today and tomorrow now is. Crawford’s still one of the team’s most upbeat guys, even during the early-morning hours of team lifts or conditioning sessions. Everyone sees it. Everyone wants to be around it. Not necessarily because of what he says but just because of who he is.

“I love Shaun because Shaun is always himself,” said middle linebacker Nyles Morgan. “Shaun is a guy who brings great energy to this team and to this defense.

“Everything he does is pure. He’s not faking it.”

Crawford wasn’t faking it in East Lansing after a second-straight Irish road win. Following his work of four tackles and the forced fumble and recovery, Crawford was awarded a game ball by Kelly. He must have thanked the head coach 50 times that night and the next morning. Even if he does it 10, 20, 30 times between now and kickoff Saturday, it still won’t be enough.

“When he gave me the game ball it was like, ‘Thank you,’” Crawford said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for and thank you for just always believing in me.”

This is a weird time of year for Crawford in his college career. For the past two seasons, he’s been on crutches and rehabbing his way through injury as October arrives. Now he’s a key member of coach Mike Elko’s defense as a backup field cornerback to Julian Love. Crawford is making plays out of nickel. He's playing in games. He’s experiencing what it’s like to be a football player week after week after week.

It’s challenging. It’s exhausting. But it’s good. All good.

“My body feels great,” he said. “I’m just thankful to be here again.”

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Notre Dame junior cornerback Shaun Crawford has become a big-play guy for the Irish after missing much of the previous two football seasons with serious injuries. (SBT Photo/MICHAEL CATERNIA)