Notre Dame’s most-tenured starter is Cole Luke, with 26 starts manning a challenging post for Brian VanGorder. Now a senior on a defense lacking in experience, Luke will have leadership duties as well as the job of covering opponents No. 1, needing a strong finish to his collegiate career after a year stuck in neutral.
Flying under the national radar—Luke didn’t find his name on the Jim Thorpe watch list—there’s a very good cornerback capable of playing at a championship level. But Luke will need to play with a sense of urgency that usually comes with a final season, a veteran who is now long in the tooth, able to draw on the memory of some really good battles over the past three seasons.
5’11”, 193 lbs.
Senior, No. 36, CB
Top 150 player, offers from both Oklahoma and Texas before choosing Notre Dame. Luke was an early target for Notre Dame, and played at Hamilton under former Irish quarterback Steve Belles.
Luke committed early and then stuck with Notre Dame as some elite programs kept giving chase. It was a big recruiting win.
Freshman Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, made 15 tackles. Broke up two passes. Made six tackles against Air Force.
Sophomote Season (2014): Played and started all 13 games, finishing sixth on the team with 48 tackles. Tied for team lead with four interceptions. Broke up 11 passes, good for the third most in school history and the most since 1978. Also defended 15 passes, tied for 20th in FBS. Had two interceptions against Stanford.
Junior Season (2015): Started all 13 games, making 41 total tackles, one TFL, two interceptions and five pass break-ups. Led Notre Dame’s defense with 870 total snaps, playing his best-graded game against Pitt, per PFF College.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Luke didn’t have the season that he did in 2014, when he was challenged with perhaps the most dynamic slate of top-line receivers in the country.
For as productive as Luke was last year, this season might be primed for even better returns. if KeiVarae Russell is as good as expected, opponents won’t want anything to do with him. So that might mean Luke’s number is getting called more often, a great situation for a cornerback who believes in his ability to make plays.
In 2015, we need to find out how competitive Luke really is. Russell will bring that out in his secondary mates — and Lyght will foster it as well. But every great cover man plays with zero memory and a unbendable self-belief that seemed to exist at moments for Luke, but also showed some low-points (I’m thinking of the USC game, specifically).
That’s life as a sophomore. But Luke is an upperclassman now and has the potential to be as good as he wants to be. We’ll find out in 2015 if that’s just a productive college cornerback… or a DB with the chance to be another top draft pick on a roster that looks stacked with pro prospects.
There’s an NFL player here, and Luke’s senior season will determine whether or not he’s a guy drafted in the early-to-mid rounds or if he’s a player who’ll fight to stay on the bottom of a roster. He won’t likely test with elite speed and he’s got good-but-not-great size. So he’ll need to make his waves as a technician, and find a way to be around the football more—something he did quite well as a sophomore.
But Luke at his best is a standout. The more you watch his sophomore season (and flashes last year) the more you see a a coverman with great positional talent.
Whoever starts opposite Luke next season will be a newcomer. So that’ll mean the senior will draw the marquee assignments, potentially flipping sides of the field and following a receiver if Todd Lyght and VanGorder think that makes the most sense. So Luke will have plenty of opportunities to showcase his talents before the next level awaits.
Luke is a key piece of the puzzle for the Irish in 2016. He and Max Redfield will be senior starters on the back end, two veterans who absolutely need to bring their best to the table for the Irish defense to improve. I think Luke is primed to do just that, playing his third season in a system he’s familiar with and playing for the second straight year with Lyght as his position coach.
Can Luke make big plays? He sure can. We saw him all around the football in 2014 with 11 pass breakups and four picks. That’s the type of impact the Irish need from him, and it’ll likely determine whether or not he gets looked at as a national player or just a nice veteran.
To be a great cornerback you need to be a productive one, and this defense desperately needs to find ways to take the football away and be impactful. I think Luke does it this year, growing into a leadership role and playing with the confidence of a senior. Luke’s my pick to lead the secondary in interceptions and pass breakups.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Torii Hunter Jr.
Tony Jones Jr.