Irish cornerback Cole Luke is getting a chance this spring to finish what he started. Though in Luke’s case, where he started – as Notre Dame’s nickel cornerback in the fall of 2013 – bears little resemblance to the position’s present reality.
“We’re moving guys around, and I’m getting a little feel of nickel right now,” said Luke, firmly entrenched as Notre Dame’s right cornerback since Game 1 of the 2014 season, his sophomore campaign. “Just a little bit,” he added, noting, “It’s totally different. Totally different (scheme). It’s only the same because of where you line up on the field, but other than that our (nickel) scheme is completely different.”
The fact that Luke can be evaluated in such a role speaks to the newfound depth of the cornerback position in South Bend. And “new” is the operative word, because other than Luke and his 26 consecutive starts, Notre Dame’s spring competitors at the position boast far more talent and promise than experience and production.
“It’s weird,” said the senior-to-be of his elder statesman status. “It feels like just a year ago I was in their spot, getting used to spring practices and that kind of stuff. Now I’m trying to take on a leadership role and trying to be more vocal.”
MORE MEN FOR MAN TO MAN?
With classmate Devin Butler shelved for much of spring ball as he recovers from foot surgery, it’s Luke’s veteran voice that rings out in the cornerbacks room. But according to head coach Brian Kelly, Luke’s not alone at the top of Notre Dame’s evolving depth chart, regardless of his resume.
“(Shaun) Crawford and (Nick) Watkins and Luke, those three guys,” said Kelly of competition for two starting spots. “It's wide open. Those three are interesting to me.”
The redshirt-freshman Crawford is interesting because of the versatility and athleticism he brings. Lost last August to a knee injury after immediately winning the defense’s starting nickel role, Crawford is already back battling for a starting spot. Perhaps in two roles.
“There’s no problem with us moving our starting corner inside depending what the circumstances are if he gives us that kind of versatility,” said Kelly. “As you know, we did it with KeiVarae Russell (in 2015) and felt like that gave us a better look. We’re very comfortable being able to do that if he becomes the starter.”
Russell’s move inside last fall ultimately weakened the perimeter, and the Irish eventually scrapped the maneuver. That won’t likely be an issue if the Irish corners remain healthy this season, not with Luke, Crawford, and Fiesta Bowl starter Nick Watkins challenging for time.
“It was a big moment for him, his first start,” said Luke of Watkins and the then-sophomore’s efforts vs. Ohio State on New Year’s Day. “I think it gave him a huge boost of confidence just knowing we need him and kind of rely on him. Just throwing him out there and feeling the pressure, I think it’s good for him…putting him under the spotlight in a high pressure environment kind of helped him out.”
The aforementioned Butler, redshirt-freshman Ashton White, and sophomore Nick Coleman comprise the remaining members of defensive backs coach Todd Lyght’s three-deep on the corner. Incoming freshman Julian Love is expected to receive an evaluation at nickel upon arrival and at least two others (at present Troy Pride, Jr., and Donte’ Vaughn) project to the position, furthering the competition.
Such newfound strength in numbers elicited a declaration from Kelly, one that could be taken as a challenge to the defensive staff after Notre Dame’s pass defense found itself on the receiving end of repeated punches delivered courtesy the passing attacks of Virginia, USC, and Stanford last fall.
“There’s no excuses on our end for us not to have enough, we’ve got plenty of players,” Kelly said. “I know what it looks like back there and there’s enough players…We’ve got enough players to get the job done there defensively.”
In good health, Crawford will doubtless be among the unit’s leading men.
“He’s so smart. Just a smart, smart, smart football player,” said Kelly Wednesday of the Lakewood, Ohio product. “He worked nickel today and some corner. We just want to be careful with his (work) volume. We limited him a little bit in 7-on-7 and team today, but he took some reps and it’s a big difference with him out there.”
According to Luke, there’s little difference in Crawford physically despite last season’s setback.
“Umm…to me? I don’t know how physically he feels,” Luke offered when asked if Crawford was rusty. “But to me he looks like the same Shaun Crawford that came in his freshman year. He’s very explosive. He’s playing with his brace right now, which is going to limit him a bit. But I don’t see a drop off.”
If they continue to progress, there won’t be one for the youth-filled group next fall, either.