During Wednesday morning’s practice Brian VanGorder pressed Notre Dame’s defensive backs on his complex scheme, one that too often left the secondary confused last season.
Nick Coleman didn’t back down from the defensive coordinator’s press coverage, firing back the details of a scheme he didn’t understand last season. VanGorder walked away impressed.
It was a reminder of how far Notre Dame’s three sophomore defensive backs have come in the past year and how far they still have to go. But mostly it was just a good vibe put down by Coleman as the class wraps its first spring practice.
“You can see the progress in him, maturing,” Lyght said. “He’s really trying to be technically sound, be fundamentally sound. His intelligence has really gone up.”
Even as Notre Dame’s sophomore class of defensive backs all progress, they’re doing it at different rates. While Coleman works with the second team in hopes of landing a starting job, Crawford has already landed one, and maybe two depending on how you look at it. White figures to be a reserve after his red-shirt season and impact special teams.
Regardless, Notre Dame likes what it has in this three-man class, even if it’s yet to do much on Saturdays. Coleman was a deep reserve last season and didn’t factor into game plans even when KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler went down. Crawford missed the entire year with a torn ACL, which removed Notre Dame’s starting nickel. White struggled to acclimate and took a red shirt.
Now much of Notre Dame’s defensive potential hinges on the class, specifically Crawford. He’ll start at nickel and probably on the outside too when the Irish play base defense.
“He’s really, really important to what we do,” Lyght said. “He’s an outstanding player, his understanding of the defense.”
Lyght lauded Crawford’s ability to play in a phone booth, lining up over slot receivers and taking away their two-way go while also diagnosing the backfield and blitzing. It’s a rare skill set the Irish couldn’t find last year, all but abandoning the nickel after Crawford’s camp injury.
Russell played nickel sparingly, but that exposed Butler on the outside and ultimately helped scrap the formation.
Now when Notre Dame goes nickel, Crawford will move inside with Cole Luke and Coleman outside, although Nick Watkins should retake that job when recovered from his broken arm. Lyght said Luke will be the second nickel, potentially opening the door for Notre Dame to mix-and-match nickel backs based on the opponent.
But it all starts with Crawford.
“He has that savvy and that really good football instincts that you’re looking for,” Lyght said. “Because when you have a player like that you want to get his proximity closer to the ball so he can make more plays. Shaun’s that type of player.”
White is further off the pace but has competed for a second-team corner spot during spring practice after being a scout team player as a freshman. Fundamentally raw but athletically sound, White’s impact might be more in the kicking game than in the secondary, as Lyght sees it. He said White might be on all four coverage/return units.
“I think he should be a ‘Four Core’ team guy with his ability to get down the field and his speed and his ability to make plays on the ball,” Lyght said. “He should be great on special teams.”
Considering how little Notre Dame’s sophomore defensive backs have played to date, those roles proposed by Lyght represent a big jump. But based on how the group has answered questions all spring, it seems like realistic progress too.