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Crawford’s health and Pride’s progress strengthen Notre Dame’s cornerbacks beyond Love

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Todd Lyght’s, and Notre Dame’s, embarrassment of riches forces him to downplay a second-team All-American. Lyght must convince himself, the Irish cornerbacks and the media paying excessive attention to the April depth chart that both the field and the boundary coverage positions are up for grabs. If rising-junior Julian Love has already secured the latter, then others may begin to lose interest or focus.

That would defeat the purpose of having up to five starting-quality cornerbacks on the roster, not to mention an early-enrolled freshman who already moved to safety and another four incoming freshmen arriving this summer.

“What I want our guys to understand is even though only two guys can come out if we’re in base or three if we’re in nickel, I want them all to see themselves as if they’re a starter,” the cornerbacks coach said last week. “I like to rotate them with the first- and the second-team, so they get the feel of being a starter. I want them all to think that they’re starters, and I want them all to approach the game like they’re starters.”

When Julian Love jumped a route against North Carolina State and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown in October, he not only all-but sealed the Wolfpack’s fate, but he was the first person to intercept NC State quarterback Ryan Finley all season. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Inevitably — well, as inevitably as a sport rife with injuries will allow — Love will start against Michigan on Sept. 1. (144 days, if anyone is counting.) He will take the majority of the 80-100 defensive snaps, as well, but throughout the season, up-tempo offenses will look to stress the cornerbacks both in coverage and in pace. At that point, having an actively-engaged Troy Pride will bear needed results.

A few weeks ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed out specific scenarios where Pride was in the wrong coverage or had the wrong position a season ago. That criticism stood out amid Kelly’s compliments of the rising-junior.

Past mental errors have put Julian Love in costly positions, specifically against Stanford in November. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

“Another spring gives [Pride] more of an opportunity to gain that knowledge which you need to be smart and savvy,” Kelly said March 20. “I don’t think there’s anything from a skill piece that he’s missing. It’s experience, knowledge, film study and then a little more strength to continue to build that within his tackling.”

Through eight spring practices (a ninth was held two days after Lyght’s availability), Pride has shown improvements with those understandings.  Lyght pointed to Pride and rising-senior Shaun Crawford (pictured at top) as the two most-consistent cornerbacks.

The absence of Love from that list may be a coaching tactic, or it may be the natural human reaction to spring practice following a truly-excellent sophomore season, one which only built upon a surprisingly-strong freshman campaign. When asked who was competing with Love for the other starting position, Lyght mentioned each of the other four veteran cornerbacks has been named as one of the top 10 percent of defenders this spring, a motivational tactic employed by new defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Perhaps Love has been, too, but he was not included in Lyght’s listing.

“For Julian, his key to success and his key to getting to the next level is going to be focus and attention-to-detail,” Lyght said. “Sometimes when he gets out there, he can get to autopilot mode.”

Again, that coaching observation is not a cause for any alarm whatsoever. The odds are 50-50 at worst it is nothing more than a coach refraining from overly praising his best player for 12 months a year. Coming off a season with three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns and the third within five yards of the same result, and 68 tackles, good for No. 5 on the team, Love’s status as both a starter and a vital defensive cog is not in question.

Who starts opposite him remains such, because of Pride’s surge and Crawford’s versatility. When healthy, Crawford has spent his career at nickelback. Last season it took until mid-October, by Lyght’s estimate, before Crawford was back to 100 percent after suffering an Achilles injury in September of 2016. Being that fraction of a step slow and the inherent endurance questions related to it played a part in keeping Crawford at nickelback. Without those concerns, he may move to the field position moving forward.

“Shaun is an extremely smart player,” Kelly said Saturday. “He makes up for his size with football intelligence. What I’ve noticed more than anything else this spring is he has some suddenness to him, change of direction, closing on the football.

“Things of that nature where he was healthy last year but he still didn’t have that ‘snap’ that you require. He’s going to be a guy we can play at the field corner position and he’s going to be an immense help to us on all special teams.”

Frankly, the combination of a fully-healthy Crawford and an engaged Love would qualify as a guilty pleasure of cornerback talent on its own. That is merely a fact. Adding in a maturing Love, an adjective offered by Lyght, creates both depth and a dangerous nickel package.

Lyght said rising-junior Donte Vaughn moves between field and boundary, just like fifth-year Nick Watkins does. Watkins does such largely out of institutional knowledge, it would seem. Vaughn’s moves come from the exact opposite. Lyght is readying Vaughn for a full-time commitment to the field position.

“I want him to get more reps into the field because I think he’s more comfortable in the field, even though he’s such a good press corner,” Lyght said. “The game is a little slow and he’s able to see things a little bit better out into the field.”

Even with those five, Lyght made it clear he expects to play at least a few of incoming-freshmen Noah Boykin, DJ Brown, Tariq Bracy and Joe Wilkins. Boykin’s athleticism or Bracy’s speed would make them the most-likely candidates.

Editor’s Note: If confused by field and boundary designations, they take the place of left and right in Notre Dame’s defensive scheme. Whenever the ball is snapped from a hashmark, rather than the exact middle of the field, the narrower side of the field is the boundary.