Nick Coleman embracing specialized role as Notre Dame's nickelback

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nick Coleman couldn’t end Notre Dame’s long interception drought at safety when he started 12 games at the position last season.

But two games into the 2018 season, as Notre Dame’s top nickelback, Coleman gave his former safety-mate Jalen Elliott a gift.

In the second quarter of the 24-16 Irish victory over Ball State last Saturday, Coleman deflected a Riley Neal pass intended for Justin Hall on a slant route. The ball redirected in Elliott’s direction to allow him to make the first interception for a Notre Dame safety since Drue Tranquill against Virginia Tech in November 2016.

Elliott, who also intercepted a pass in the third quarter, made sure to give Coleman his due credit.

“I had a great play by Nick Coleman,” Elliott said. “Great play on the slant. He read it perfectly, got his hand in there and tipped the ball out. I was just standing there in the right place at the right time.”

Coleman appreciated the shout-out.

“Jalen gave me a big thank you,” Coleman said. “Now we’re back rolling. He knew who to give that credit to.”

Coleman hopes to have a similar impact Saturday, when eighth-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) hosts Vanderbilt (2-0) and fourth-year Commodores starting QB Kyle Shurmur (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).

Credit hasn’t always come Coleman’s way during his Notre Dame career. He’s bounced around the depth chart and switched from cornerback to safety to nickelback. He’s rarely been seen as the top talent on the roster at any of the positions he’s tried.

Even his current role came as the result of starting nickelback Shaun Crawford’s season-ending ACL injury in August.

Some will always associate Coleman with the first career start in 2016. Playing cornerback for the Irish in the season opener at Texas, he struggled covering the Longhorns. Included in that was wide receiver John Burt beating Coleman deep for a 72-yard touchdown in the 50-47 double-overtime loss that launched a 4-8 season.

That memory predates the addition of current defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, who joined the Irish in January. Coleman had a chance to make his first impression on the new coach in spring practice. It wasn’t a good one.

Soon Coleman appeared to be sliding down the depth chart. That changed come August.

“He would tell you he didn’t have the greatest spring,” Joseph said in August. “He really dedicated himself to being a better mental player. Now it’s showing up physically, and now he’s in position to make some plays, and now he’s getting that production that he wants to get.”

The poor spring motivated Coleman, and it’s a reminder that he can’t be satisfied with where he finds himself now.

“When you have a lot of guys in the room that can play at a high level, it elevates your game, too,” Coleman said. “When we’re all playing at our best, it brings us all up. I needed to step my game up. I had a pretty good camp because of it. We’re still competing. Just because camp is over, not everything is set in stone still.”

In August, Joseph said the 6-foot, 194-pound Coleman would probably have the best combine-style testing of any of Notre Dame’s safeties. That’s why Coleman has been able to move around to so many positions. He takes pride in that athletic versatility.

“I love being that guy — Swiss Army knife,” Coleman said. “But it also helps you understand the game more playing from three different positions. You get three different perspectives playing the game. I feel like I’ve grown my football knowledge from freshman year to now so much.”

If Notre Dame needs help at safety, cornerback or nickelback, Coleman is ready for the challenge. He’s even in special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s office every Sunday asking for a chance to return kickoffs.

Coleman began preseason camp working as a starting safety alongside Alohi Gilman. But he was also working as the backup nickelback behind Crawford. When Crawford went down, Coleman slid into his spot.

“Obviously, when that tragic event happened, it was just the next-man-in mentality,” Crawford said. “I’ve been playing nickel since I started here. It was nothing new. It sucks for Shaun, obviously. I was just the next guy in, and I’ve been pretty comfortable playing it so far.”

Comfort shouldn’t come easy at nickelback. At a moment’s notice, Coleman can be thrown into the game. He doesn’t get the chance to stay in the flow of the game very long. He can be on the sidelines for several plays before being asked to return to the field.

“You have to be locked in,” Coleman said. “You can come in for one play, and it can be third-and-8, two minutes left, and you have to get a stop.”

The deflection Coleman made to set up Elliott’s interception came on a third-and-3. It was the third play of a Ball State drive and Coleman’s first on the field. He was lined up in man coverage in the slot against Ball State’s best receiver. Then he made the play.

“You’re kind of like a pinch-hitter or a closer,” Coleman said. “You just have to be locked in. That’s the beauty of it. If you make the play, you’re a hero.”

Crawford delivered on multiple occasions for the Irish last season. He broke up five passes, intercepted two more, recovered two fumbles and forced a fumble too. Coleman wants to emulate that impact. He has Crawford helping him out along the way.

“Shaun’s been in my ear ever since the day he got hurt,” Coleman said. “It’s good having him on the sideline. He’s a smart guy. He knows the game in and out … It’s good having him, because he knows exactly what I’m going through.”

There’s not a long list of teammates who can relate. Specialists at punter, kicker and long snapper have similar limited roles. But at least their actions are mostly self-controlled. At nickelback, Coleman has to react to what the offense is doing.

“You just have to have a heightened sense of focus coming into practice and on the sidelines,” Coleman said. “Sometimes we might just bring a nickel in and take a linebacker off. You have to know when those type of situations are going to arise.”

“You can kind of tell too. If they’re bringing another guy in, ‘OK, I’m ready to go in.’ That one-play kind of mentality is what nickel’s about.”

Anticipate. React. Make a play.

Then hope there’s more credit than blame to be given.

Notre Dame’s Nick Coleman (24) breaks up a pass intended for Ball State’s Justin Hall (12) during the Ball State at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.