Notebook: Size didn't stop Notre Dame's Shaun Crawford from earning starting safety spot

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The size difference in Notre Dame’s starting lineup at safety will be staggering.

In Saturday’s season opener against Duke (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC), 6-foot-4, 219-pound free safety Kyle Hamilton will roam the secondary alongside 5-foot-9, 180-pound strong safety Shaun Crawford.

Despite head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly mentioning Crawford at safety throughout the preseason, the reality of him stepping into the starting lineup at the position to start his sixth season at Notre Dame finally set in with Monday’s depth chart release.

Crawford, a cornerback for most of his career, worked at safety last preseason too. He was always a reserve option with secondary experience at a position that lacked depth.

But the 2020 roster appeared to have other answers at the safety position with junior Houston Griffith settling into the position after switching from cornerback too and Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor joining the program. Crawford’s emergence will keep them waiting.

“We didn’t come into camp expecting (Crawford) to win it,” Kelly said. “We came into camp expecting him to be a placeholder at that position. He came out and won that position. We are a better football team with Shaun playing the position.”

Crawford, who suffered season-ending injuries in his freshman, sophomore and senior seasons, played in 11 games and started eight at cornerback despite the middle of his season being disrupted by a dislocated left elbow. His playmaking ability has flashed throughout his career in the form of interceptions (four), pass breakups (seven), fumble recoveries (two), forced fumbles (one) and a two-point return on a blocked extra point.

The Irish are betting on those skills applying to the safety position despite Crawford’s height.

“The safety position — and I think we have a really good model to look at — is about instincts,” Kelly said. “It’s about toughness. It’s about versatility. And we just need to look back to last year with Alohi Gilman.”

But even Kelly’s comparison of Crawford to Gilman requires a bit of imagination. Gilman, who started all 26 games at safety the last two seasons and was drafted in the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Chargers, doesn’t have prototypical safety size either. Yet Gilman still had slightly more than one inch and 22 pounds on Crawford.

Whereas Gilman could comfortably play physically in coverage against tight ends, Crawford’s most comfortable coverage may be against slot receivers.

“With the size of Alohi Gilman and the size of a Shaun Crawford, you could still play that position at a high level if you have great instincts, if you have toughness, if you have ball skills,” Kelly said. “And Shaun’s got all those things. And he’s been extremely productive for us at that position.”

Griffith and sophomore KJ Wallace were slated behind Crawford at strong safety. Pyror and junior DJ Brown were listed as co-backups behind Hamilton at free safety.

Notre Dame’s official depth chart offered some clarity beyond the safety position too. Here are some of the top takeaways looking ahead to Saturday’s opener.

Buck rotation

Trimming down the options at the lone open starting linebacker spot was never likely to come down to just one player at buck linebacker. But the Irish have at least limited the leading options for Saturday down to two: junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Marist Liufau.

“Both of them are prepared and ready to play,” Kelly said. “(Defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) will make the decision as to who runs out there with the starting group, but both of them have had great camps and both of them are prepared and ready to play a lot of football for us.”

The 6-3, 230-pound Simon played in 10 games mostly on special teams last season before dislocating his right kneecap. Liufau (6-2, 226) preserved a year of eligibility last season by only playing in four critical games — Georgia, Virginia, USC and Michigan — as a special teamer.

They beat out a long list of contenders including senior Jordan Genmark Heath and junior Jack Lamb and sophomore Jack Kiser. Genmark Heath announced Monday night he was walking away for the program with eyes on graduating in November, which could open the possibility of a grad transfer with two years of eligibility remaining.

Kelly feels so good about the depth at the linebacker position that he even praised backup mike linebacker Bo Bauer, a senior, for having his best camp yet.

“The depth at the linebacker position — we feel really good,” Kelly said. “We have two guys on the scout team right now that, I’ll tell you what, are really, really good football players in Jack Kiser and JD Bertrand. And we have a hard time blocking those guys.

“So that’s a really good problem to have when we have that kind of depth on our football team at the linebacker position.”

Fresh face at CB

Junior TaRiq Bracy hasn’t secured a starting cornerback position all to himself quite yet. Bracy was joined on the depth chart as a co-starter with freshman Clarence Lewis.

The 6-0, 192-pound Lewis was only rated as a three-star recruit out of Middletown (N.J.) Mater Dei, but he’s already made a strong impression on the Notre Dame coaching staff.

“The corner position requires not only athleticism,” Kelly said. “It requires an ability to make plays when the ball’s in the air — a savvy and a sense — and the ability to tackle. (Lewis) brought all those.

“Certainly we could talk about the coaching as well. (Cornerbacks coach) Mike Mickens has done a really good job of bringing him along. But a lot of that is Clarence had some innate ability at that position that was able to translate itself early on in his time here.”

Kelly compared Lewis to former Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who started as a freshman for the 2012 Irish, even though their athletic traits may be a bit different.

“Clarence has clearly demonstrated that as a true freshman we could put him on the field at the same level or possibly even higher than the level that KeiVarae had to play as a true freshman,” Kelly said. “We did pretty good that year.”

Bracy started in two games last season and played in 12 with 34 tackles and a team-high seven pass breakups. N.C. State grad transfer Nick McCloud won the other starting cornerback job ahead of sophomore Cam Hart.

Skill position shuffle

The difference between starter and backup at Notre Dame’s skill positions may mean less as the season progresses. Even in the season opener, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will likely use different combinations of personnel depending on the situation.

Though senior Brock Wright was listed as the starting tight end, he will likely be on the field at the same time with junior Tommy Tremble or other tight ends. Kelly said all five tight ends will play. The depth chart listed sophomore George Takacs and freshman Michael Mayer as co-backups with Tremble, who is Notre Dame’s leading returner in receptions with 16 last season.

The older receivers won out at every wideout position with grad transfer Ben Skowronek ahead of junior Joe Wilkins Jr. at boundary receiver, grad senior Javon McKinley over junior Braden Lenzy at field receiver and senior Avery Davis ahead of junior Lawrence Keys III at slot receiver.

The running back depth chart mirrored what Kelly described last week with sophomore Kyren Williams as the starter with the four other running backs — freshman Chris Tyree, juniors Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and senior Jafar Armstrong — listed as co-backups. Tyree will also get a chance to make an impact as the starting kick returner.

Walk-on specialists

Michael Vinson was the only player not on scholarship listed as a starter for Notre Dame this season. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound walk-on will start at long snapper.

Vinson, a junior, will replace three-year starter John Shannon, who ended his career last season as the Patrick Mannelly Long Snapper of the Year. Vinson beat out scholarship freshman Alex Peitsch for the job.

Dawson Goepferich, a walk-on grad transfer from Brown, was listed as the backup for kickoffs and place-kicking behind Jonathan Doerer and punts behind Jay Bramblett. Goepferich made 7-of-10 field goals last season with a long of 35 yards, averaged 38.1 yards on 31 punts and kicked 31 touchbacks on 57 kickoffs.

Notre Dame cornerback Shaun Crawford (20) is back for a sixth year for the Irish.