The climb never ends for resurgent Notre Dame safety Nick Coleman

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Nick Coleman keeps climbing.

Notre Dame’s 6-foot, 192-pound junior safety started at the base of the mountain, lying on his chest at the Texas 5-yard-line. A few feet in front of him, wide receiver John Burt flexed with the football, a bundle of bulging adrenaline, the undisputed winner of a 72-yard race to the end zone.

Burt ran right past Coleman. No tricks. No double moves. He beat him off the line of scrimmage, caught the ball in stride, high-stepped through a desperate, lunging tackle and received a euphoric Texas reception.

Notre Dame dropped a 50-47 overtime heartbreaker to Texas on Sept. 4, 2016, a devastating start to an equally devastating 4-8 season.

Coleman allowed a 72-yard touchdown and later committed a defensive pass interference penalty in the first start of his Irish career.

But every mountain has a base.

Not everyone finds it, looks up, then chooses to climb.

“Nick's a guy who maybe didn’t play his best football last year,” Notre Dame rover Drue Tranquill conceded earlier this season. “He took on a new position (this spring), something that he has not played here at Notre Dame.

"I just saw a kid who came into his own and acted like a sponge and was just absorbing coaching, was absorbing everything the strength coaches were telling him and was just looking for an opportunity to help this football team in the capacity that he could.

“I think you've seen him come into a role and he's starting to thrive there.”

In a different system, at a different position, under different coaches, Coleman finds himself in a different place. The converted cornerback started Notre Dame’s first six games this season at free safety, piling up 21 tackles and gradually rebuilding his reputation.

Coleman — whose father, Trey, played tailback at Notre Dame in 1983 before transferring to Dayton — admits he only “dabbled at safety” during a sterling prep career at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter High School, finding more consistent success at running back and cornerback.

But, under Irish first-year defensive coordinator and safeties coach Mike Elko, he embraced the change and saw the possibilities.

“Sometime during the spring I felt like I could be a big playmaker in this defense,” Coleman said. “Ever since then, I’ve been trying to keep pushing forward.”

That push propelled Coleman into a standout performance in the 20-19 loss to Georgia on Sept. 9, in which he made four tackles and fearlessly pursued a slew of capable Bulldog running backs.

Still, he didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t think it’s fun losing at all,” Coleman said in the wake of the Georgia loss. “My personal grade wasn’t where I wanted it to be, to be honest. Sure, I made a couple plays, but there were a lot of other plays that not everyone saw where I wasn’t in the right position.

“I’m just trying to elevate this game of mine.”

Therein lies the theme: elevation, progression, the never-ending climb.

Coleman wasn’t satisfied after Texas, and he isn’t satisfied now. Sure, he’s a starter … today. But what about tomorrow?

“I don’t really see myself having a hold on the position,” he said. “That’s always going to be a constant project.”

Maybe that (along with Elko’s guidance) is the secret to Coleman’s season-to-season turnaround. To this true junior, job security doesn’t exist. He remembers what it feels like to struggle, which allows him to value any sudden success.

And, truly, who represents the Irish defense's facelift better than its first-team free safety?

“I think you see a guy who wants to be great in the capacity that he can, and so his confidence just continues to grow,” Tranquill said. “I'm so excited for the kid, because he really embodies what it means to be a Notre Dame football player. He's great on and off the field.”

Through six games this season, No. 16 Notre Dame (5-1) has allowed just four passing plays of 30 yards or more, which is tied for 11th nationally. The Irish rank third in opponent red zone touchdown percentage (35 percent), 15th in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and 30th in pass-efficiency defense.

But Coleman and his teammates have yet to reach the summit. No. 13 USC (5-1) and preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Sam Darnold travel to South Bend on Oct. 21. In fact, five of the team’s six remaining opponents are ranked, and those six teams boast a collective record of 27-6.

Turns out, there’s no such thing as a perfect defense or a perfect game. There’s no cap on potential improvement.

For Coleman, specifically, there’s no summit, no end zone. Just the climb.

“You can never be satisfied,” he said. “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. That’s one of my mottos. Even in the tough times, you have to keep working to get better. That’s something I’ve really lived by.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Nick Coleman (24) celebrates making a tackle during the Georgia at Notre Dame NCAA College football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA