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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-9 1/8, 178 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: A senior academically, Crawford has (at least) two seasons of eligibility remaining, including the 2018 season. If desired, there is reason to think the NCAA could grant Crawford a waiver for one more season.
Depth chart: Before the spring, it was readily-assumed Crawford would start at nickelback in 2018, but senior safety Nick Coleman spent some time there, as well, offering a more physical option at the position. Crawford also remains in contention for duties as the field cornerback, though junior Troy Pride appears to have pole position in that race.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, the Under Armour All-American walked away from a commitment to Michigan shortly after receiving an offer from Notre Dame. The No. 7 cornerback in the class of 2015, per rivals.com, the No. 7 recruit in Ohio and the No. 82 in the country, Crawford also held offers from Miami, Ohio State and Florida State, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Despite playing in all 12 regular-season games last year, Crawford’s story continues to be defined by his injuries. (Notre Dame’s statistics indicate Crawford did not play in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, but nothing sticks out to the memory as to why/if he did not.)

Crawford emerged as the starting nickelback in preseason practices as a freshman before a torn ACL ended his debut season before it began. An absurdly-quick recovery had him ready to face Texas to begin 2016, and Crawford shined that evening, returning a blocked point after attempt for a defensive two-point conversion. Just a week later, though, an interception celebration yielded an Achilles tear and another season prematurely ended.

In his first full collegiate season, Crawford may have tired as the season progressed. His tackle numbers  actually increased (14 in the first six games, 18 in the last six games), but every one of Crawford’s big plays came in the first half of the year. It would not be a stretch to think his stamina had not yet caught up to his athleticism in the recovery from two devastating injuries.

2015: Lost entirely to preseason injury.
2016: Two games; six tackles, one interception, one PAT return for two points.
2017: 12 games, one start; 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks and two interceptions, five pass breakups, two fumbles forced and one recovered in the end zone at Michigan State for a touchdown-preventing touchback.

QUOTE(S)
Maybe a second season healthy will end the injury questions regarding Crawford, but they still popped up this spring. That, in turn, allowed Irish head coach Brian Kelly to emphasize how good Crawford looked.

“What I’ve noticed more than anything else this spring is he has some suddenness to him,” Kelly said in early April. “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.”

Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght admitted he still has to reign in Crawford a bit in practice, but that is as much due to the junior’s mentality as it is his injury-plagued past. In order to get through 2018 healthy, skipping a few reps in March and April is a small cost to pay, especially considering the qualities Lyght feels Crawford brings to the field.

“Shaun is really good at reading route combinations and understanding offensive schemes and where they want to go with the ball,” Lyght said. “Also, his ability to communicate when offenses adjust and they motion and we have to transition from one defense to another or we have to transition from one technique to another — he’s really good at communicating that.

“He’s one of our smartest defenders on the field. With his height, the 50-50 jump balls are the only things that are an issue. If you play a team like Stanford where they have 6-4, 6-5, 6-6 wide receivers, that is an issue on an every-down basis. You have to watch the matchups.

“He’s a player that can definitely help us win both on the perimeter and inside. He’s one of my favorite defenders.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Let’s start by staying healthy for a season. Crawford’s injuries are certainly not his fault, but until he can hold up to the grind of a collegiate season, this outlook hardly matters. He played both sides of the ball in high school with great success, so there is reason to believe his body is up for a physical workload — it just has not had an opportunity to show that yet.

“If healthy, Crawford’s quickness and pound-for-pound strength should make him nearly the ideal nickelback. Few slot receivers or running backs running routes can shake someone with Crawford’s skillset.”

There is not the slightest bit of exaggeration or presumption when saying Crawford’s strip-and-recovery at the Michigan State goal line saved a touchdown early in that Notre Dame victory last season. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

2018 OUTLOOK
Crawford at his peak last season may have been Notre Dame’s most-dynamic defender. It is just difficult to know if his peak was short-lived or if the opportune moments were simply more infrequent in the season’s second half. Given the slide of the entire Irish defense, it is not a leap to presume Crawford tired. Coming off those two injuries, it would be an understandable fatigue.

That cannot be the case in 2018, even if it appeared to be somewhat the situation in the spring. Coleman seeing time at nickelback showed a loosening to Crawford’s iron-clad grip on the position. A few times, he let Notre Dame’s receivers get by him, something beyond consideration when he is at his quickest.

A summer focused on conditioning, not rehab, could help that cause, at which point expect another fall of 30-40 snaps per game (of an estimated total possible of 80) with about 40 tackles and whole numbers in the statistical columns of tackles for loss, sacks, pass breakups and interceptions. That kind of all-around production is what makes good defenses great, so Crawford’s start could be an early litmus test for the whole team’s first season under Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

With that in mind, the theoretical nickelback competition between Crawford and Coleman is one to watch in preseason practices. If Crawford lines up against Michigan on Sept. 1 and knocks down two passes before tackling a ballcarrier in the backfield, raise any expectations for Notre Dame’s 2018. If he gets beat on a deep route and Coleman subs in immediately and permanently, lower those thoughts likewise.

DOWN THE ROAD
Irish junior cornerback Julian Love may have an NFL-or-stay decision to make following this season. Those disclaimers pop up for players named second-team All-Americans as sophomores. If he heads to the draft, Pride could move to the boundary position and Crawford spend a season as the starter at field cornerback. That would bode best for his own NFL aspirations.

Even if Love sticks around, the NFL is always looking for speedy athletes with quick hips who can make plays. In other words, a healthy Crawford. Proving that health — and total recovery from a tough-to-overcome Achilles injury — over the next two seasons would lay that groundwork very well.

Crawford may find himself needing a sixth year in college to burgeon his professional chances. Given the timing and nature of his two injuries, it is logical to think the NCAA would grant the waiver for him to play a fourth full season, be it at Notre Dame or elsewhere.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer