Safety Shaun Crawford is ready to scream for Notre Dame's defense

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Shaun Crawford spent the last two weeks on the practice field yelling.

The sixth-year safety wasn’t expressing anger. Instead, Crawford was working on improving his communication skills from the back end of CFP No. 2 Notre Dame’s defense.

“I always thought I was vocal until I got moved to safety and I actually needed to be vocal,” Crawford said. “It’s more than just trying to rally the guys. It’s getting the guys set and getting the guys into the right position.”

The vocal leadership became a priority for the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Crawford after a few mixups in Notre Dame’s 45-31 win at Boston College two weeks ago. There were times when the defense wasn’t aligned at the snap of the football, and Crawford takes responsibility for that.

Even though Crawford is doing plenty of learning of his own in his first full season at safety after five years at cornerback for the Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC), he knows he can make his job easier if everyone is on the same page. That’s why he spent the off week putting a strain on his vocal chords.

“I’ve been screaming my butt off these couple weeks trying to make it second-nature,” Crawford said. “I’m excited for this week’s game, because now I can put it into play.”

Communication will be key Friday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC) at No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 6-2). The Tar Heels manufacture yards and points better than most offenses in the country with their run-pass option scheme. Only three teams have limited North Carolina, which averages 563.4 yards and 43.1 points per game, to fewer than 41 points.

Crawford needed 45 seconds to rattle off everything the North Carolina offense does well.

“North Carolina’s an explosive team. They have two great backs, so we have to be tied into the run game. We have to wrap up. We have to bring them down, because they’re great after contact.

“They have great receivers on the outside. A lot of speed, a lot of skill. And also a quarterback that can get them the ball. The quarterback can make any throw. He’s good from in between the hash to outside the numbers. We have to make sure we’re playing top down and we’re tight in coverage.

“He does fit the ball into small windows and he’s definitely reading the safeties, corners and overhangs. We have to do a great job of disguising, a great job of staying true to our reads and playing tight in coverage.”

Defending quarterback Sam Howell, wide receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, and running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter will require a lot of communication in the secondary. It will also require patience.

In defending the run-pass option, Crawford and fellow safety Kyle Hamilton don’t want to necessarily make the first move. That will make the decision easier for Howell. Instead, Crawford and Hamilton want to react and rely on their athleticism to kick in once the play becomes clear.

“The challenge that we’ll face at safety is being patient,” Crawford said. “Not in a hurry to get down in the run game. Not in a hurry to get in our backpedal. To get our read, to clear our cleats and to make sure that we’re seeing the right things.”

North Carolina will test Crawford’s development at safety. In eight starts, Crawford has tallied 34 tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, four pass breakups, two sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. He’s fourth on the team in tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks, but his position switch hasn’t gone without flaws.

When he first made the transition, Crawford thought playing safety would allow him to see more of the field than when he played on the outside and closer to the line of scrimmage at cornerback. While Crawford can literally see more, he’s learned that can be a negative. Watching everything develop can take him away from where he truly needs to be focused.

Those lapses can lead to big plays for the opposing offense. Particularly against the pass — and not specific to only Crawford — the Irish haven’t played to their standard the last two games. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and Boston College quarterback Phil Jurkovec combined to throw for 711 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame. The Irish allowed only two touchdown passes in the previous six games.

“Throughout the bye week I watched a lot of plays, a few plays from the BC game, to try to focus on doing my job and staying on my keys and staying on my read,” Crawford said. “Not trying to do too much, not trying to see too much. That’s one of the big things that I’ll take moving forward for the rest of the season.”

The pressure that North Carolina will put on Crawford won’t be new for the veteran captain. He’s been in plenty of high-leverage situations during his time at Notre Dame. Even the Irish defensive scheme puts pressure on Crawford to stay within the system and keep everything together while Hamilton is given more freedom to make plays.

“A lot of pressure on (Crawford) to do some things from a tactical standpoint that require a lot of communication with corners, and getting that information from one sideline to the other,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “I’m not up here to talk about all the things that could and do go wrong back there during a game, but Shaun has a lot on his plate. He’s working through it, and we have a ton of confidence in his ability to continue to ascend at that position.”

Crawford, who smiled this week through a non-answer about potentially returning to Notre Dame for a seventh season, has a chance to author the ending of an Irish career that was previously sidetracked by three season-ending injuries. Though the NCAA eligibility rules created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic would technically allow another year, this is most likely Crawford’s last ride with the Irish.

His final home game at Notre Dame Stadium should come next week. He’s finishing his career, which includes 100 tackles to date, playing a position he’d always dreamed of playing.

Since making this Notre Dame defense better requires him to yell, Crawford has embraced making his final chapter a loud one.

“When you make the other 10 better, I can make myself better,” Crawford said. “When I think about it, when I’m being quiet, when I’m not communicating to the other guys, it’s me being selfish.

“So when I’m able to understand the defense and get the scheme down for this week’s prep, I’m able to help the other guys and make us a confident unit.”

Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford (20) celebrates after the Irish upset No. 1 Clemson, 47-40 in two overtimes, Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) and safety Shaun Crawford (20) celebrate after a third-quarter stop in ND’s upset of No. 1 Clemson, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford, right, has embraced the physicality of the position after playing cornerback his first five seasons with the Irish. Pictured, Crawford hits Pittsburgh wide receiver Shocky Jacques-Louis.