From Stand-In to Stardom?

Notre Dame junior Cole Luke was pressed into action last season after the suspension of KeiVarae Russell, one of the team's 10 best players. Luke proceeded to ascend to the level of his processor.

Comparing the two is akin to choosing between an apple and an orange -- personal preference ranks as the relevant differentiator.

Irish cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell (sophomore, 2013) and Cole Luke (sophomore, 2014) operated under disparate defensive schemes, faced seven different opposing programs, and were surrounded by no less than seven different regular starting players (plus myriad rotation members) in their respective standout seasons.

But because Russell's status as a projected 2014 star prior to his suspension was unimpeachable in Irish football circles, it's thus relevant to compare the pair.

Russell 2013: 9 passes defended, 1 interception, 51 tackles (1.5 for loss), 1 fumble recovery. One notable poor performance (the Michigan fiasco), but with five notable MVP/Game Ball-level efforts (Michigan State, USC, Air Force, BYU, and Rutgers).

Luke 2014: *15 passes defended, 4 interceptions, 48 tackles (2 for loss), 2 forced fumbles. One notably poor performance (the USC fiasco), with four, arguably five notable MVP/Game Ball-level efforts (Stanford, 2nd-half vs. North Carolina, Northwestern, Louisville, plus ASU in terms of his pass defense.)

*Luke's 15 passes defended are the most at the program during the Brian Kelly era (safety Harrison Smith had 14 in 2010).

By the time the University's Summer Session gets underway in late June, the pair above will begin to operate in tandem. An issue for opposing quarterbacks to be sure.

"I would say if there's one player we would single out on defense that has progressed as maybe some others have leveled off or haven't progressed the way we have wanted him to it's Cole Luke," said head coach Brian Kelly as the November-to-never-remember marched on. "He has really out performed in our eyes in a number of ways. If there's a silver lining through so much turmoil relative to personnel in the loss of Russell, playing Cole Luke and getting him this year really bodes well for us."

Luke's not the first "Next Man In" to shine, but he put forth the best and most complete effort in that regard since Kelly took over in South Bend. (Matthias Farley 2012 and Tyler Eifert, Tommy Rees, Sean Cwynar, and Brian Smith 2010 were also first backups, then replacements/life-savers for their respective teams.)

Luke, who committed just one pass interference penalty (Syracuse, not his best game) also yielded only two touchdowns on the season, the first against FSU on a slant to All-America Rashad Greene, and six games later at USC -- hereafter referred to as "Every Trojan Gets a Trophy Day" -- a go-route to George Farmer. He led defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's unit in *Big Plays with a whopping 29.

(*Big Plays include interceptions, tackles-for-loss/sacks, passes defended, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, blocked kicks/punts, and of course, touchdowns.)

The relative rookie interviewed following the season-opener against Rice because he made it through his first career start evolved into the best player in Notre Dame's secondary and one of the five best overall players on the 2014 team.

"I wouldn't have expected this in the fall," said Luke last November of his personal ascent, plus the loss of two starting cornerbacks (Russell and Cody Riggs). "Most importantly I've learned a lot from when I actually stepped in the first game until now. I feel like all corners have to know what kind of corner the are, whether they're (better at) press or off (coverage). Coach (VanGorder) is trying to push me into more of a press corner, but I'm trying to work on both so I can compete with any type of receiver.

This summer, in August camp, and throughout the fall, Luke and Russell will be embroiled in the type of competition only Irish fans, coaches, and players can embrace.

THE LUKE FILE
A review of Luke's 2014 season, the bulk of which was played as the team's right cornerback. (One of the two aforementioned touchdowns Luke allowed came on the left side, vs USC.)

Film Review Top 10: Stanford, Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville
Film Review Honorable Mention: Michigan, North Carolina, LSU
(My) Cumulative End-Season Ranking: #4 (Day, Smith, Fuller, Luke, Schmidt, Folston, Rochell, Stanley, Golson, Riggs)
Ranking Entering Spring 2015: #6 (Smith, Stanley, Day, Fuller, Rochell, Luke...)

The 20-Big Plays Club, Kelly-Era:
Big Plays include interceptions, tackles-for-loss/sacks, passes defended, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, blocked kicks/punts, and of course, touchdowns. Since every sack is recorded as a tackle-for-loss, only the tackle-for-loss number is added to the total. (Admittedly, a formula is needed to better feature touchdowns.)

-- Cole Luke 2014: 29
-- Manti Te'o 2012: 25.5
-- Harrison Smith 2010: 21.5
-- Robert Blanton 2011: 20
-- Stephon Tuitt 2012: 20 (includes a touchdown)


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