Can Nick Coleman be the money player Notre Dame has been looking for at nickel?
Nick Coleman wasn’t exactly trying to reinvent himself.
Running back was the position in which the Notre Dame senior defensive back earned all-state honors at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter High School and the position Brian Kelly clandestinely moved him for a week in 2016 when injuries ate into the position’s depth.
So when the incumbent 2017 starter at free safety pushed the idea of a position switch to offense at Irish head coach Brian Kelly this past spring, the notion wasn’t quickly dismissed.
He already had the endorsement of running backs coach Autry Denson, and convinced QBs coach Tommy Rees into watching him catch some passes.
But then two other position-switch experiments showed promise — former QB Avery Davis and especially former wide receiver Jafar Armstrong — and so Coleman went back to the defense.
Saturday at Yankee Stadium (2:30 EST; NBC), the move that Coleman and Kelly didn’t end up making may finally pay off. That’s when third-ranked Notre Dame (10-0) clashes with a 12-ranked Syracuse team (8-2) that’s seventh in the FBS in scoring.
It’s only the second time in the nine Shamrock Series games that the Irish have faced a ranked opponent. And the Orange are slotted 10 spots higher than Arizona State was in the 2013 game in Arlington, Texas — won by ND (37-34).
With a prolific dual-threat quarterback in Eric Dungey, standout wide receivers on the outside and in the slot, and a strong running game to pull it all together, Syracuse is the biggest threat to date to test the chronic soft spots in an otherwise stellar Irish pass defense, ranked sixth nationally in pass-efficiency defense.
That would be the rover position, where Asmar Bilal plays, and the nickel, where Coleman resurfaced last Saturday night against Florida State and corralled his first career interception on the way to perhaps his best career game at any position for the Irish.
And, yes, Coleman has been around. He was a starting cornerback in ND’s 2016 season opener against Texas and in game 3 against Michigan State, but was demoted the next week and by the end of the season was ND’s sixth option at the position.
He reemerged the next spring as an experiment at safety, and did well enough to hold down the starting position in all but the Navy triple-option game in 2017. But he was more a default solution than an ideal one, and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman zipped past him on the depth chart once he was eligible to play after sitting out 2017 per transfer rules.
Still, Coleman thrived in August training camp, to the point where he was a strong candidate to start alongside Gilman. But days before ND opened the season with Michigan on Sept. 1, senior nickel Shaun Crawford suffered a season-ending knee injury and Coleman was tasked with a new role.
“Basically you’ve got to be three different positions at once,” Crawford said of the difficult nickel skill set. “You’ve got to be a linebacker on certain plays. You’ve got to see the field as a safety, and then you’ve got to cover like a corner.
“And I think with my experience, it’s helped me to play all three positions and combine into that one nickel spot. It’s just about being in the playbook and obviously studying the film.”
Even that wasn’t enough, though, long term. Coleman soon began to time-share the position with promising freshman Houston Griffith, whose best position is probably safety, and then was pushed down the depth chart so the Irish defense could invest in the high-ceiling, younger player.
Even as Griffith continued to struggle.
“He really is going to be a great player,” Coleman said of Griffith. “With me being out of the picture some weeks, it was an opportunity for me to take more of a leadership role, i.e. Houston, really develop him.
“Just trying to be that overarching force of the defense, just trying to push everyone to the direction we want to be. That’s all I really focused on. And whenever my number was called, I’ve been ready.”
“He got a lot of work this week,” Kelly said Thursday night after ND’s last full practice before Saturday’s game. “With their (Syracuse’s) personnel, the nickel will be a very important piece of what we do. I like what he did, I thought he was savvy.
“Later in the season, I like to do more 1s versus 1s (in practice) for the speed (of the game). So I got a chance to see him quite a bit this week and thought he was on top of his game.”
The last time Notre Dame and Syracuse met — in 2016 across the Hudson River at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. — the teams combined for 36 points in the first five minutes of the first quarter before the Irish prevailed, 50-33.
In that game, the first after defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired, interim Mike Elston started then-freshman Julian Love at cornerback and gave plenty of playing time to fellow freshman corners Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn.
Coleman played mostly on special teams.
“I try not to let football dictate my happiness,” Coleman said of the ups and downs. “I’ve worked too hard to be vengeful. I just try to push our defense in the direction that it needs to be pushed, as a mentor to the guys who were playing.
“And if we keep getting wins, I’m going to be happy.”