Notre Dame scrambles for a Plan B after CB Shaun Crawford suffers another torn ACL

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A preseason camp with little adversity got a large dose of it days before 12th-ranked Notre Dame opens its season Saturday night with No. 14 Michigan.

And an all-too-familiar figure is at the center of it.

Senior cornerback Shaun Crawford, one of the most versatile members of the Irish defense, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee Tuesday in practice, Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday after practice. Surgery will be scheduled and Crawford’s 2018 season is over before it started.

“Very disappointing,” Kelly said. “We were in one-on-one drills, and he got caught up with a receiver.

“Your heart is broken for a kid who worked so hard to get back on the field and has been set back by injury. It’s difficult for him, but he’s handling it the best he can.”

It’s the third time in four years that a serious leg injury wiped out all or most of Crawford’s season. It’s also the third time in four years that Kelly has had to scramble to cobble together a Plan B in late August/early September.

This time it has lots of tentacles, and dilutes two positions — corner, what was arguably the strongest position group on the team, and safety, the position group that’s come the furthest since last season.

Crawford played the nickel spot in Notre Dame’s defense, a fifth defensive back on obvious passing downs, but he was physical enough to play the rover position and be close to an every-down player, depending on the kind of offense the Irish were facing.

He also was the first corner to rotate in to keep starters Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. fresh.

Kelly said safeties Nick Coleman, a senior, and freshman Houston Griffith would now handle the nickel role, with Coleman being the first option. Both players are converted cornerbacks.

With a surge in preseason camp, Coleman had been projected as a starting safety, or at least a primary rotation piece. It’s possible now that Griffith will start at safety Saturday night along with Navy transfer Alohi Gilman.

Jalen Elliott, a returning starter who had improved this offseason but got leapfrogged by Gilman, and senior Nicco Fertitta also figure to be rotation players at safety.

As far as cornerback depth, 6-3, 211-pound junior Donta Vaughn — ND’s biggest cornerback — is now the first corner to rotate in for the starters. Freshmen TaRiq Bracy and DJ Brown are also in the playing mix.

“Donte’s a long corner who has real good ability to get his hands on footballs,” Kelly said. “I think the thing that has held him back, to be honest with you, we might have over-coached him a little bit.

“This year we’ve backed off on trying to fit him into a particular technique and gave him a little bit more freedom to be comfortable with what was best for him and utilizing the technique that worked best for him.

“I think he’s really blossomed from that perspective. We feel really good if we have to put him in the game. He can play both the (field) corner and the (boundary) corner for us.

Crawford was also a leading consideration to return kickoffs this season. Kelly said he wasn’t sure who would be handling that Saturday night.

As a freshman in 2015, Crawford was trending toward being the No. 1 nickel back when he tore the ACL in his right knee in preseason camp. In 2016, in the first quarter of game 2 of his sophomore season, it was a left Achilles tendon tear.

Crawford bounced back to play in 12 games last season, with one start, but wore down in the second half of the season.

The 5-foot-9, 181-pounder from Lakewood, Ohio, finished the year with 32 tackles, including 1 ½ sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and five pass breakups.

“Definitely going into this fall camp I felt different. I felt loose, and like my mind especially, clear of all injuries, clear of any negative thoughts,” Crawford said recently, before the injury. “I talk to (cornerbacks) coach (Todd) Lyght all the time.

“I was like, ‘Since freshman year, this is the first time I came in with a full spring, full offseason able to lift legs heavy and all that stuff.’ Throughout the season and throughout the offseason as well, I felt myself coming back.

“When we started combine testing and things like that, I started to see the numbers I was used to seeing. I felt really good about myself coming into this season.”

Crawford originally verbally committed to Michigan while playing at Lakewood St. Edward High, but flipped his commitment and ended up signing with Notre Dame.

He does retain a fifth-year option in 2019 and would be a strong candidate to successfully petition for a sixth year if he decided to go down that road.

Love Thee pic.twitter.com/z1Ag7n5ghd

— Shaun Crawford (@ShaunCrawf20) August 31, 2018Wimbush improving his putting?

What Kelly wanted to see from his No. 1 quarterback this week in practice, and what he ultimately did see from senior Brandon Wimbush, moved the Irish head coach to a golf analogy.

“He needs Phil Mickelson’s short game,” he said. “That’s the best I can give you.”

Short game as in high-percentage throws that turned into low-percentage throws and high frustration too often last season.

“He’s worked diligently on them,” Kelly said. “He’s better at them, and he’s going to get continually better at them throughout the year.”

By the numbers

Saturday marks the 17th time in which Notre Dame opens a regular season under the lights. The Irish are 12-4 (.750) in prior season-opening night games, which includes a 4-0 record at Notre Dame Stadium.

• Michigan has won 11 straight games in September after dropping coach Jim Harbaugh’s first game as the Wolverines’ head coach, 24-17 at Utah in 2015.

• The Michigan defense led the FBS in 2017 by forcing a three-and-out on 51.2 percent of its opponents’ possessions.

Notre Dame’s Shaun Crawford, bottom, recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchback after stripping the ball from Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) in a 38-18 Irish victory last season.

No. 12 NOTRE DAME (0-0) vs. No. 14 MICHIGAN (0-0)

Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1)

Line: Notre Dame by 1½