In the midst of winter conditioning and seven weeks away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most relevant questions to be answered over rest of the winter, spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #3 – WILL THE NICKEL PACKAGE RETURN?
Of course, if you’re a young Notre Dame fan, you might first ask, “What’s a Nickel?” (Five defensive backs, removing one of three linebackers.)
One of the curiosities of the otherwise well-stocked Brian Kelly era in South Bend has been the absence of quality defensive back depth, and as a result, the 2012, 2013, and 2015 Irish rarely featured a Nickel package. First head defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s 2014 unit did, but the Nickel was safety Matthias Farley, a wily veteran implemented in the scheme because of his playmaking acumen and instincts, not his downfield coverage skills.
Farley was largely successful in his role in ’14 but the better passing offenses (most notably Florida State) were able to take advantage of the attacking senior’s inherent issues in space. In short, Farley was simply (easily) one of the 11 best defensive players, not a true Nickel.
VanGorder often utilized a Dime package (a sixth defensive back) in 2014, adding then-freshman Drue Tranquill to the mix on third down, but inconsistent safety play behind the Farley/Tranquill pairing forced Tranquill to take over on the back end.
Oddly it was Kelly’s first two Irish teams – 2010 and 2011 – that best utilized the Nickel package, with No. 3 cornerback Robert Blanton filling the role with aplomb in 2010 (Darrin Walls and Gary Gray manned the corners) and former cornerback turned safety Jamoris Slaughter doing the same one season later, flanked by Blanton and Gary Gray.
(Incidentally, Blanton’s 2011 season ranks as the best single season – and it’s not close – by a Kelly-era cornerback.)
WHERE’D IT GO?
The 2012 Irish employed true freshman safety Elijah Shumate in the Nickel role and he enjoyed mid-September success, breaking up third-down passes against Michigan State (two) and Michigan.
The Irish utilized Shumate sparingly throughout the rest of the season thereafter with then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s Base 3-4 the preferred third down package. (You might recall watching Danny Spond making third down plays against Brigham Young in space and Ishaq Williams doing the same at Oklahoma.)
Shumate was predictably exposed by Alabama as a slot cover man to conclude the season and early 2013 opponents followed suit, with Michigan State enjoying the most success at his expense in an otherwise ugly offensive outing in South Bend.
(Prior to the win over the eventual 13-1 Spartans, backup freshman cornerback Cole Luke was overmatched physically in the role, including a rough outing at Purdue – a rudimentary passing attack at best).
By the time Oklahoma rolled into South Bend – a 35-21 Sooners win – Diaco again scrapped the Nickel in favor of the base 3-4 defense, even on obvious passing downs.
The Nickel was poised to make a return to VanGorder’s defensive scheme last season until an August camp injury to expected starter Shaun Crawford (more on the redshirt-freshman below) forced VanGorder to nix the Nickel in favor of a Dime look with Tranquill as a fifth defensive back.
Tranquill was injured three games into the season and Notre Dame largely scrapped its preferred sub packages (unless you count the Torii Hunter, Jr., experiment of early-to-mid-November) for, once again, the continuity of a base defense.
2016: A CLEAR CHOICE
Prior to his August ACL tear, Irish true freshman Shaun Crawford was the squad’s second-fastest player (with Will Fuller the accepted lead dog in that race). Listed as the team’s smallest player including kicker Justin Yoon, Crawford also appeared to rank among the most physical, repeatedly bullying Irish receivers in camp practices prior to injury.
It took Crawford about a week to win the role over Farley last August. Approximately seven months later, Crawford is expected to take it back, purportedly in good health and ready to roll for spring ball.
With the redshirt-freshman the clear-cut leader for the Nickel role, it begs the question: Will he likewise contend for the starting left cornerback spot opposite RCB Cole Luke?
The guess here is “no,” because unlike college defenses of the 1990s in which a “Nickel” was simply code for a team’s third-best cornerback, the Nickel position today is its own entity. That is: roles, responsibilities, keys and adjustments vary greatly from those on the corner. Crawford will have enough on his plate learning and mastering the Nickel position – Kelly & Co. has enough candidates to man left and right cornerback in 2016 without him.
CORNERING THE MARKET
Barring injury or the remarkable ascent of Nick Coleman, Luke will start for the third consecutive season on the right side. Opposite the senior will be either classmate Devin Butler, junior Nick Watkins, or Coleman. (One among the trio has to backup Luke, making that player the odd man out in August when it comes to a fair shot at a starting role – but that’s what spring practice is for.)
Nickel personnel including Crawford (slot coverage), Watkins (left) and Luke (right) could develop as the best natural coverage trio since the aforementioned Walls, Gray, and Blanton of 2010, though that threesome doubtless benefitted from safety Harrison Smith, (dubbed “Boy Wonder” per then-Safeties coach Chuck Martin) behind them.
Who will likely backup a healthy Crawford in the Nickel role? Butler has not shown to be well suited athletically in terms of defending the two-way go – he’ll certainly compete at LCB instead – while Watkins has finally found his toehold on the perimeter with a Fiesta Bowl start against Ohio State. Moving Watkins and challenging the junior to learn two positions seems imprudent.
Coleman flashed his skills at times on the perimeter last season and his presence at RCB would afford the Irish staff the luxury of a trusted two-deep at the position. That leaves fellow redshirt-freshman Ashton White or an incoming freshman (Julian Love’s innate knack for the game might offer an immediate leg up in this regard) to learn on the fly in August.
Will the Nickel be an effective package for the Irish in 2016? The pieces finally appear in place.
For previous editions of “12 Questions” click the links below: