Notre Dame’s nickel back never made it to the field in 2015, with freshman Shaun Crawford lost for the season after he tore his ACL in August. It was an unceremonious end to a freshman season with great expectations, with Crawford impressing everybody who saw him compete in his first days on campus.
Crawford’s absence set back the Irish defense, hamstringing the secondary and putting Todd Lyght’s unit into a scenario where they felt their best option to fill his job was Torii Hunter—a converted wide receiver. That so much was hoisted onto the shoulders of Crawford tells you quite a bit about what the Irish staff thinks about the diminutive Ohio native, especially heading into his sophomore season.
With a starting job open opposite Cole Luke, Crawford has the chance to be more than just the team’s nickel back. And after seeing him compete this spring less than eight months after knee surgery, Crawford looks like a key piece to the defensive puzzle.
5’8.5″, 180 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 20, DB
Under Armour All-American, top-100 player per Rivals. First-team All-State, Ohio state champion. Offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and plenty other elite schools.
Crawford’s height was the only thing holding him back from a 5-star grade. And he got mighty close even at five-eight (and change).
Freshman Season (2015): Did not play after tearing his ACL in August camp. Medical redshirt saves year of eligibility.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Crawford was ready for whatever the Irish staff planned to throw at him last year, if only the knee injury didn’t stop him.
Greg Bryant’s reported four-game suspension likely opens a door for Crawford to get a shot at returning punts for the Irish in addition to battling for snaps in nickel and dime coverage packages.
Crawford’s instincts are part of what makes him such a dynamic football player. While physically there’s not much he’s going to be able to do about getting matched up with a 6-4 receiver, Crawford could also be part of the solution at safety, especially if something goes wrong with Plan A and Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.
Throwing too much on the shoulders of a freshman defensive back is never wise. But it would be smart to give Crawford a specific assignment—like the Irish did with Elijah Shumate during the 2012 title run—and let him go to work.
The sky is the limit. The staff believes Crawford is an immediate impact player. I’m a believer as well—even if our only data point is a spring game where Crawford managed to wreak havoc, even while wearing a non-contact green jersey.
In today’s pass-heavy football, Crawford’s ability to play on the inside and against slot receivers is a key skill. While he’s not going to grow into the lengthy outside cornerback that can matchup all the time with lanky receivers, Crawford can do plenty of other things at an elite level that make him a really, really impressive prospect.
I think it’s only a matter of time before Crawford is a starter on this defense. I’m confident he’s already one of the team’s best 11 defenders, regardless of if he’s categorized as a starter or nickel back.
The battle to start on the outside opposite Cole Luke will be interesting. Devin Butler’s foot injury likely turns this into a three-horse race, with Nick Watkins having to rehabilitate a broken arm this summer and Nick Coleman still very raw. Crawford’s best spot might not be on the outside, though he could be a compelling boundary cornerback. But he might be too good to pull off the field, especially if Watkins isn’t able to ascend to the starting job.
I’m not going to get wrapped up in what Crawford is called. I think he’ll be a guy that stays on the football field for as many snaps as possible, knowing that his playmaking ability and nose for the football will make him invaluable in Brian VanGorder’s scheme. I expect him to be one of the team’s leaders in filling up the stat sheet, an instantaneous upgrade from Matthias Farley at his best—when he had a quietly productive 2015 season in the slot.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z