Luke still learning, albeit in a lead role

Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Cole Luke forced his way onto the field as the team's No. 3 cornerback and nickel defender last September. Though he's in a starting role this spring, fall camp 2014 should prove a bigger challenge as the Irish secondary gets healthy and adds experience to its perimeter.

As one of three expected regulars at cornerback not named Keivarae Russell, sophomore cornerback Cole Luke will be a busy man next fall.

Russell ranks among Notre Dame's four or five best players and has been the defense's most impressive player this spring. With 26 starts under his belt and a new system that suits him, Russell expects to take the next step -- from solid, as he was for the second half of 2013, to standout.

The rest of the Irish cornerbacks, Luke included, are at present a few steps behind. They'll be no shortage of footballs fired their way next fall.

"KeiVarae is ahead of all of the corners and probably by a good amount" said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "There's a big difference there.

"We just have to get Cole to play with a little bit more urgency sometimes, but he's coming along, and he's making progress every single day. We've just got to keep working with him. Really, at this point, he's doing exactly what we want him to do. We just need to continue to push him because we've set a high bar with KeiVarae. Now he sees that and that's where we've got to get him to."

Luke has received first team reps throughout, partly because he earned such status through his play as a true freshman last fall, but also because his two top competitors aren't among the spring's combatants: classmate Devin Butler is out of contact following shoulder surgery, and expected fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs is not yet on campus, finishing his graduation requirements at Florida.

There's room for more than two as Notre Dame's corners will play a huge role in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme.

"I think Cole Luke is a very skilled player. He's just a young player that we've got to keep developing," said VanGorder. "You've got to win out there on that perimeter, so we'll keep challenging them and look for improvement."

They have to win, because they're playing man-to-man. A lot of it.

"It's a lot more aggressive, kind of more in their (the wide receivers') grill, so I like it," Luke admitted. "I work on having a great practice and what allows that is really my body position. My body position helps me get out of my break.

"Then it's all about the weight room plus the film room with (Secondary) Coach (Kerry) Cooks and the other corners."


Luke's best came late against the Trojans

Seniors Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson and redshirt-freshman Rashad Kinlaw represent spring competition, though Butler took part in drills (without pads) in the media's most recent practice viewing March 29.

All learn from Russell, the former prep running back who'll vie for captaincy as a true junior this fall.

"He's helped tremendously, even when I was playing nickel last year," said Luke of the gregarious Russell. "He always grabs me, puts me in the film room. He's helping me to become a better man as well as a better football player."

Luke's God-given talent helps, and it will likely allow him to play through mistakes next fall, an inevitability for most true sophomores as Russell learned early last fall before polishing his craft.

"Oh he's got incredible feet, fast feet, his quickness, size," said Kelly when asked for Luke's strengths. "He's got all the physical attributes. We're working on technique, we're working on suddenness, we're working on tackling, those things."

Those feet helped Luke win the nickel role last September. In modern football, the nickel cornerback has the hardest job on the field, and he's a de facto starter vs. the preponderance of passing offenses and spread attacks.

"We're all over the field," he said of the corners' roles this spring. "Three cornerbacks (are almost starters) now. With the nickel, it's a two-way go (there's no sideline to aid the defender), man. So it's not easy."

With Russell, Riggs, Butler and Luke, it won't be easy for opposing offenses, either.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories