You wonder about the thought process, first and foremost.
What must have gone through Brian VanGorder’s head when freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford went down with a season-ending ACL knee injury last August?
Based upon the decision to basically scrap all nickel and dime defenses against offenses that used multiple wide receivers sets, one can picture VanGorder assessing his options and simply concluding, “It’s not worth it.”
“We knew in training camp he was our best nickel,” said VanGorder of Crawford. “Then he got hurt and we lost our nickel package.”
That’s how quickly and how well the 5-foot-8 ½, 180-pounder out of Lakewood, Ohio adapted to the role that VanGorder had in mind for the speedy four-star prospect.
“I worked at it a lot my senior year,” said Crawford, who made 91 tackles, had eight tackles for loss, broke up 17 passes and nabbed seven interceptions as a senior at St. Edward High School.
“Me playing nickel was on my highlight tape a lot. We talked about it on my recruiting visit. Matthias Farley played it and they used it a lot. One of my favorite players is (5-foot-9) Tyrann Mathieu and he plays it.
“I love corner, but I want to be part of the play every single play. I love physicality and hitting, so it was definitely a fit for me.”
With the spring-ending arm injury to cornerback Nick Watkins, Crawford is now the leading candidate to start at the left cornerback position as well as the hands-down No. 1 nickel.
“Nickel has definitely opened my eyes about the game of football,” Crawford said. “I’ve learned more about the game playing nickel just because you have to be versatile.”
Not surprisingly, the nickel position is a very complex one in the VanGorder scheme. Crawford has had to really home in on his strengths as a football player -- how to utilize them and how to minimize the shortcomings that come with being an undersized cornerback.
First, there’s the mental part of nickel.
“Just before the play, (you have to) sight where the running back is, and where my No. 1 receiver and No. 2 receiver are,” Crawford said. “How tight he is to the line of scrimmage? How do I play that?
“Sometimes I have to know if a receiver comes from across the field and who has him. You come off blitzes at nickel. Sometimes you have to roll back to safety. Sometimes you play underneath of two…different variations, plus the run-play action.”
Then comes the physical part.
“A bigger guy I want to get my hands on because I’m not worried about him running me deep,” Crawford said. “I’m worried about the back shoulder (throw), the jump ball, so I try to get hands on him at the line and cut him off.
“A guy my size, a faster guy, I play him differently. I try not to get so much hands-on but play quicker so he doesn’t go by me. The quicker guys in the slot are difficult because they go underneath.”
Crawford, who comes across as a very serious, studious football player, has the physical and intellectual capacity to play the “athletically cerebral” position of nickel. His ability to recover when a receiver gets an edge on him is invaluable as well.
“Makeup speed is great at any position. You want to train yourself not to be in those positions, but then when you are, you rely on your speed to make a great play.”
It sounds like it will be difficult to get Crawford off the field, which is what made the 2015 season so agonizing.
“It was very difficult just because coming in as a freshman, it wasn’t my talent that kept me off the field, it was an injury,” Crawford said.
When the frustration of watching practice would get to him, he’d retreat to the weight room where fellow injured players Tarean Folston and Drue Tranquill were experiencing the same agonizing wait.
“I definitely relied on faith, my family members, the training staff and the coaches,” Crawford said. “Seeing the team play was fire for me to get back on the field.”
When spring drills commenced in March, Crawford was just seven months removed from suffering the torn ACL. Two hours on the practice field this spring caused some discomfort in that knee at first. But now, as the spring has progressed, Crawford feels fit.
“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford said. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.
“In the end I think it made me a better person, a better player.”
A player Notre Dame’s defense simply cannot do without.