Shaun Crawford again ascending in deep and talented Notre Dame cornerback corps

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s 10:30 in the morning, and Todd Lyght is wishing people “good afternoon.”

When you have such a stockpile of talent in your position group and players universally driven to rearrange your cornerback depth chart, it probably feels like you have some semblance of control over even seemingly uncontrollable things, like time of day.

What the Notre Dame cornerbacks coach does have actual command of these days is unfolding in fascinating ways this spring. Not the least of which is reigning second-team All-American Julian Love being exceeded in his consistency, eight football practices into the allotted 15 this spring, by senior Shaun Crawford and junior Troy Pride Jr.

"I want them all to see themselves as starters,” Lyght says.

All five of the returning corps, that is: Crawford, Pride, Love, grad senior Nick Watkins and junior Donte Vaughn. And when most of the freshmen arrive in June, Lyght wants newcomers Noah Boykin, Joe Wilkins Jr., Tariq Bracy and DJ Brown to have that starter’s mentality as well.

“In today’s age, I’m not a really big believer in the redshirt systematically,” Lyght said after Thursday’s practice.

“It’s good for some players individually, but just as a general philosophy, I think if you have a really good player and then you redshirt him and he plays two years, he might leave anyway. So what’s the point of redshirting him?

“Just let him play and let him develop.”

What is developing at the cornerback position — big-picture — may be the best experience/talent combo as potential starters since the 2002 pairing of unanimous All-American Shane Walton and AP third-teamer Vontez Duff, and the deepest reservoir of high-ceiling players since the era in which Lyght himself was winning All-America honors as an Irish cornerback in 1989 and 1990.

And that’s even with impressive early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith recently being poached to join the safeties. Of the nine who remain at the position, only Watkins has expiring eligibility after the 2018 season.

“With the uptempo offenses nowadays, where you’re faced with 90 or 100 plays a game over a 12-game season, a 13-game season, you have to play a lot of guys,” Lyght said, “because you’ll eventually end up getting somebody hurt if they have too much volume. And that’s not what we want.

“We want to develop our guys. We want everyone to be invested. We want everybody going into the week knowing that they’re going to have the opportunity to play.

“And so if they get 20-30 reps during the game, they’re going to practice extremely hard leading up until the game, knowing that they’re going to play.”

The most both intriguing and impressive surge this spring has come from Crawford, seen as a potential game-changer as a true freshman before two season-ending surgeries (torn ACL, ruptured Achilles tendon) in back-to-back seasons had him starting over in 2017.

The senior-to-be, with a potential medical redshirt season available in 2019, was a quasi-starter in 2017, manning the nickel position. He’s pushing, and so far succeeding, for an expanded role in 2018, in which he’d be used both outside and inside as one of ND’s best overall options.

“I think we gain huge benefits by playing him at multiple positions,” Lyght said, “because he’s smart enough to get it done, he’s athletic enough to get it done and his playmaking prowess as a defender, his ability to dislodge the ball from running backs, his ability to go up and high-point the ball, his ability to win in one-on-one situations, you want to keep guys like that on the field.”

The one caveat about Crawford’s skill set — being 5 foot-9.

“The 50-50 jump balls are the only big issue,” Lyght explained. “If you play a team like Stanford, where they have 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 wide receivers, that is an issue on an every-down basis. So you have to watch the matchups.”

Speed, however, is not an issue. Not anymore.

Lyght said Crawford got back to his pre-surgery speed roughly halfway through last season. But after missing so much time over the 2015 and ’16 seasons, Crawford apparently doesn’t take well to sitting out to modulate his workload.

“If you take him out (in practice) and turn your back on the field, he’s such a great competitor that he sneaks back out onto the field,” Lyght said. “So that’s why you love him.

“But just knowing what I know about him, it’s my responsibility to make sure that we temper his reps, just to make sure he can make it through the entire season completely healthy.”

The cornerback play was both healthy enough and strong enough in 2017 to help the Irish pass-efficiency defense vault from 79th nationally the season before to a modest-but-respectable 46th last season.

An even more dramatic leap in that area was tamped down by holes in the safety corps, which didn’t record a single interception last season, and an inconsistent pass rush that faded to a No. 83 national ranking in sacks by season’s end.

Both areas are showing strong signs of growth this spring, the safeties in part because of an infusion of new talent, the pass rush because of players maturing into their roles.

That’s not to say either are devoid of growing pains. The same goes for the cornerback group.

Months after setting a school record for pass breakups in a season (20) and finishing second nationally in 2017 in that category, Love finds himself being pushed to hold onto his top-of-the-depth-chart status.

“For Julian, his key to success and his key to his development of getting to the next level are going to be focus and attention to detail,” Lyght said of Love, who also had 68 tackles in 2017 and a team-leading three interceptions. “Sometimes when he gets out there, he can go on autopilot mode.

“He’ll make a big play and then he’ll relax and not really push himself past this comfort level. The attention to detail and his pre-snap readiness are going to be the keys to him getting to the next level.”

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford (20) celebrates an interception during ND's 49-20 win over Boston College, Sept. 16 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)