It took true freshman Shaun Crawford about a week to wrest the starting Nickel role away from fifth-year senior Matthias Farley last August.
One week later, Notre Dame’s best laid plans for a new-look Nickel defense wasn’t worth the play sheet it was printed on as the apparently irreplaceable Crawford lost his rookie season to injury and subsequent ACL surgery.
Back and close to full strength this spring, Crawford again locked down the starting Nickel role (starting right cornerback Cole Luke will back him up as a contingency) and likewise made a strong bid to start opposite Luke on the left side of Brian VanGorder’s base defense.
Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Crawford, a player whose absence single-handedly erased a package from VanGorder’s scheme last season.
Crawford maintains his stranglehold on the starting Nickel role and likewise fends off a strong challenge from junior Nick Watkins to start at left cornerback. That’s the best, realistic scenario for Crawford – but only for Crawford.
For the football team as a whole, it would behoove the defense if Watkins returns from his broken humerus injury with a fury, re-claiming the starting LCB role he manned by default against Ohio State, then earned in the spring prior to suffering the injury.
The Irish secondary needs – at minimum – three confident, playmaking cornerbacks to navigate its 2016 slate. Crawford and the aforementioned Luke already fit that description and need a fully-engaged, worthy Watkins to form such a trio.
Crawford’s impact at Nickel is sporadic rather than serving as a definitive strength as expected. To be fair to the youngster, Nickel is far and away the most challenging position for a defensive back in any defense, due both to the myriad responsibilities of run/pass in the slot and the reality that there’s no coverage help in the form of the sidelines as is the case for right and left cornerbacks.
At minimum, Crawford should be the best Nickel defender in South Bend since senior Jamoris Slaughter manned the position in 2011, but that’s a direct commentary on the lack of fit at the position for the program over the last four seasons.
Notre Dame needs more than the minimum from Crawford. It needs impact, and that’s a tall task for a player that is not only the smallest scholarship athlete on the team, but one also coming off knee surgery and with no previous collegiate experience to boot.
Too early to discern, but the hype and press reviews concerning Crawford rivals such ballyhooed redshirt-freshmen of recent Irish past as Ron Powlus (1994), Jeff Faine (2000), Tom Zbikowski (2004), Harrison Smith (2008), Cierre Wood (2010), Everett Golson (2012), Max Redfield (2014), and last season, Quenton Nelson.
Among that group, only Powlus’ redshirt-campaign was due to injury as was Crawford’s.
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
Clearly to be determined. Crawford was a four-star prospect per Scout.com, the network’s 15th-ranked cornerback and No. 116 player overall.
He’s on pace to start as a redshirt-freshman – perhaps at two positions – and if he meets myriad lofty expectations in 2016, would clearly be ahead of the expected developmental curve.
CRAWFORD AT HIS BEST
Yet to come, but in terms of media practice viewings, the most impressive singular play occurred last August prior to Crawford’s knee injury.
Pitted vs. fellow freshman speedster C.J. Sanders in the slot, Crawford locked on to the hiccup-quick Sanders two yards off the ball. After Sanders extricated himself from Crawford’s jam for a quick out cut, Crawford showed a rare burst, undercutting Sanders and picking off a DeShone Kizer pass, thereafter crashing through Sanders as the two tussled to the turf.
Crawford came up with the interception, one of many plays he made in one-on-one situations during nearly 10 full viewing hours for the media in 2015 Training Camp.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“More than anything else, the ability to play some man coverage in there. Very smart player, instinctive player. I think you have to have a real good sense of the field (in the slot). Corners play out by the numbers and they have a friend with them, it’s called the sideline. A guy that plays inside has got to understand the field better, have a natural instinct of playing inside. A guy that can play inside is unique in a sense that he has to have really good speed because he has to cover guys coming across the field, going vertical, and he possesses that speed and instinct.” – Head coach Brian Kelly on Crawford