There is a flipside argument that renders the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over Notre Dame’s inability to use a nickel defensive back in 2015 a bit stupefying.
Why didn’t you groom a replacement?
Either the Irish were caught off-guard or simply didn’t have legitimate substitutes for the man who left no doubt after a week of pre-season drills that he was the right one for the job.
But Shaun Crawford went down with a torn ACL in August. The resulting consequence was that the Irish were without a nickel back they could feel comfortable with for the entire season. That meant a significant disadvantage against multiple receiver sets.
Third-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is guarding against that happening again in 2016.
“We still want to be able to line up in base,” said VanGorder, whose unit’s inconsistent play in ’15 has put the Irish defensive coordinator under the microscope. “We have a great cover-down linebacker in James Onwualu, who’s really special doing it.
“But anytime you have a linebacker walk out over a receiver, you’re a little bit more limited. We still want to be multiple. We think that’s an advantage for us. We’ll stay that way, but the whole sub/nickel package for us is back in play.”
The key to it all – more than anyone on the outside could have realized at the time – was the injury suffered by Crawford, who is back and healthy and progressing at the same rapid pace this spring that he was in August.
“Shaun is a real football guy,” said secondary coach Todd Lyght. “He loves the game, he studies the game, and he works at it really, really hard. He’s playing both the corner and nickel position.
“(But) he really excels on the inside because of his football intelligence and his understanding of the two-three exchanges and three-four exchanges and how we play at the second level.”
There are cornerbacks and there are nickel backs. What’s the difference? It takes a very unique defensive back to play the nickel.
“Corners play out by the numbers and they have a friend with them,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “It’s called the sideline.
“The guy that plays inside has got to understand the field a lot better. He’s got to have an instinct to play inside. (Crawford) just has a natural instinct playing inside a lot better.”
So natural and unique, apparently, that the Irish had no solution for the Crawford injury. Safety Matthias Farley had played it previously, but he lacked the quick reactions it takes to defend one-on-one in the middle of the field where receiver can do damage on either side of the nickel. Crawford’s outstanding make-up speed is a huge asset after a receiver has created separation off a cut.
So as to avoid another situation like last year, the Irish are grooming a second nickel this spring with the possibility of a third arriving in the freshman class this summer.
“We’re working with Cole Luke at nickel behind Crawford now,” VanGorder said. “I see a couple of the youngsters coming in that I think are in-and-out corners, but I still think it’s important to get Cole work there.”
Three cornerbacks will arrive in June: Donte’ Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride, Jr.
“Julian Love is an in-and-out guy,” Lyght said.
Lyght calls Pride the ideal field corner, so the other nickel candidate likely is Vaughn, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds.
For now, only one Irish player clearly possesses the criteria for exceptional nickel play.
“More than anything else, it’s (Crawford’s) ability to play man coverage in there,” Kelly said. “He’s a very smart, instinctive player. You have to have a real good sense of the field.
“A guy that can play inside is more unique in the sense that he has to have really good speed because he has to cover guys coming across the field vertical. (Crawford) possesses that speed and instinct.”
This year, the Irish won’t be caught off guard if something happens to Crawford, although there likely isn’t another player on the Irish roster who can play it as well as the 5-foot-8 ½, 180-pounder out of Lakewood, Ohio.