The stark reality that the loss of one player – freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford last August to knee surgery – completely waylaid an entire defensive package and plan of attack for Notre Dame in 2015 has been sufficiently debated since by both Irish media and fans.
It’s troubling at worst, less-than-ideal at best for a Top 10 level program. How could one competitor, a rookie for that matter, mean that much to a defense that included the best linebacker in the nation and one of the country’s top defensive tackles, plus another six-pack of returning starters?
But now the bright spot: the player that took all of one week last August to win Notre Dame’s Nickel defender role is back at full speed, and he’s at present battling for two starting spots, one for which he’s been ideally suited since his recruitment.
“Speaking with Coach (Brian) VanGorder and Coach (Bob) Elliott, we all talked about that Nickel position, how they wanted to use it, because (VanGorder) used it in the NFL, and how effective it could be. I took a look at that and played it a little in high school.
“It was just a fit last year with KeiVarae (Russell), Cole (Luke), and Nick Watkins (on the perimeter), but we really didn’t have that Nickel, because Matthias (Farley) was also playing safety. They threw me in right away; I had to learn quickly. I think I picked it up very fast and it just stuck with me.
“I love it because I get to play all over the field. I get to blitz, cover, and make tackles.”
And he’ll likely get to play on the perimeter as well, though his camp battle with classmate Nick Coleman for the starting left cornerback spot remains a heated competition (Crawford will start at Nickel, regardless).
But the duties and necessary skills needed at cornerback vs. those of the Nickel (covering the slot receiver) are disparate, and Crawford is thus asked to deal with certain nuances on a play-to-play basis.
“I would say the size of the receivers,” said Crawford of the biggest challenge in a dual role. “Who is my opponent? On the outside I might get a guy like (Miles) Boykin or Equanimeous (St. Brown) who are longer and bigger.
“I have to play different technique, which is hard, because I’m still learning it. I didn’t play much corner (last August). Switching up technique and knowing to do different things is hard, but Coach (Todd) Lyght and Coach (Jeff) Burris are really on us, watching a lot of film, taking it upon ourselves to get better.”
Crawford’s two mentors have had a major impact on his development since he returned from knee surgery during winter conditioning.
“We have a chance to learn from two All-Americans; both from the NFL, both learned different techniques they can teach us,” he said of former Irish stars Lyght (1987-1990) and Burris (1990-93). “We’re going to take it upon ourselves to get better, competing every day and I think we’re going to be ready for Texas.”
After a season removed from the game he loves, Crawford is thrilled to be back among his teammates and appreciating every arduous August rep.
“Each practice I get I get excited for,” he said. “(Last year) I started to miss the little things, just like FSA, which is our warm-up and the music playing at FSA. Tying my shoes up, putting my cleats on. I don’t think I wore cleats for six months. Feeling the traction of the turf. I don’t take any day for granted anymore.”
That includes two starting spots for which he’s the odd-on favorite.
“It’s intense,” he added of the competition between defensive backs and a host of young receivers. “It’s not laid back because we don’t have a set starter like last year, Will (Fuller), KeiVarae, Cole.
“Those guys are gone, so we’re relying on (vets) and each other. We play hard and fast, get some PDs, and ‘act the fool,’ (post play).”
Fifty-one weeks ago Crawford tore his ACL. Now he’s back at full strength with four seasons of eligibility remaining. But those years might as well be part of Crawford’s retirement plan, because the rookie remains focused on today.
Said the squad’s smallest scholarship player (5’8 ½” 185 pounds) of the rehab process he endured from last August through April:
“You have to kill the day because tomorrow’s not promised.”
It’s the here and now that interests Crawford. And the Texas Longhorns.
“We don’t know who’s going to start against Texas,” Crawford offered repeatedly. “Anyone can be on the field at any time so we’re all ready play.”