With the injury to freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, an unlikely candidate has emerged as the frontrunner for the No. 3 cornerback job: Devin Butler. The junior, who struggled mightily at times last season after he was forced into action, looked to have lost his grip on that spot this spring after strong work by sophomore Nick Watkins.
But Brian Kelly updated the local media on Friday with some preliminary plans after the loss of Crawford. And Butler’s impressive work during fall camp pushed him into the Irish’s third down plans, with KeiVarae Russell shifting inside to cover slot receivers.
If that move comes as a surprise, it should. It wasn’t what the coaching staff expected, either.
“If we were handicapping the corners, we would not have thought that he’d be our third corner,” Kelly said candidly. “He’s had a really good camp. He plays with so much more confidence. Speed. He’s a different player than he was last year.”
That a third-year player gets the nod over a freshman like Nick Coleman or Watkins shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially to open the season. But Butler’s late season struggles were tough to miss, especially taking some very bad snaps against USC.
But Butler’s ascent to the first-man-in at outside corner pushes Matthias Farley into a role likely similar to the one he played last season. It also keeps young players like Watkins and Coleman in a supplemental position—earned after solid camps by both corners.
But more importantly, the move of Butler to the outside on third down allows Russell to impact the game more from the inside, allowing him to do a variety of things from the inside.
“KeiVarae gives us the ability to play man coverage,” Kelly said, all but acknowledging some of the struggles that Farley might have with smaller speed receivers. “We can blitz him and we can do a lot more with him and we feel like we’re still solid at corner with the kind of camp that those corners have had.”