The high point of Devin Butler’s season came in mid-August.
That’s when head coach Brian Kelly called out the junior cornerback as Notre Dame’s nickel solution. The Irish needed one after freshman Shaun Crawford tore his ACL during training camp, and Butler emerged as a surprise preseason option.
The way Kelly saw it, KeiVarae Russell could move inside over slot receivers in the nickel package, with Butler replacing Russell outside the numbers. It hasn’t worked out that way, with Butler confined to the bench, receiver Torii Hunter Jr. getting a nickel look and safety Matthias Farley returning to the role.
But that all changes against Stanford, with Butler getting a chance to make good on his August potential and atone for his struggles last November. With Russell sidelined by a broken leg, Butler is likely to get the first shot over freshman Nick Coleman and sophomore Nick Watkins. That pair has played even less than Butler this season.
“Devin's got some starting experience and has played a lot,” Kelly said. “But we'd like to see Nick Watkins. We'd like to see Coleman. We'd like to see all three of them in the game and contribute.
“We think all of them can contribute. And not necessarily have to rely on one guy. We think all three of them as a combination might be the best way to go.”
Whatever the dynamics, Butler will have a better chance to hold up than late last season when he replaced an injured Cody Riggs in November. His reward was Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong (third-round pick), Louisville’s DeVante Parker (first-round pick) and USC’s Nelson Agholor (first-round pick). The Irish defense collapsed.
Stanford’s leading receiver is running back Christian McCaffrey.
“(Butler) knows the defense. He’s a reliable guy,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith, who rooms with Butler. “Just talking, constantly watching film together, things like that is something that requires everyone’s attention when you go against Stanford.”
The best scouting report on Watkins and Coleman probably comes from receiver Chris Brown, who not only works against that pair daily in practice but can also empathize with scarce playing time as a young player.
Brown said Watkins is a physical cornerback with a football IQ high enough that he understands tendencies and leverage when matching up with receivers.
“It’s just being confident in what you see,” Brown said. “You can see a slant route coming, but are you gonna break on it or are you gonna sit back thinking?”
Brown said Coleman’s strength is his speed, which showed in his limited action against UMass two months ago. The freshman has barely played since, outside special teams.
“Even if you have him beat sometimes he can make his way back into the play because he has good makeup speed,” Brown said.
Whatever solution Notre Dame tries at cornerback on Saturday, it won’t be a perfect one.
The Irish just hope it’s good enough, whether that’s Butler, Coleman or Watkins.