Matt Cashore /

A (Necessary) Third Wheel

Notre Dame’s youth-filled cornerbacks unit could rank as the best – and certainly the deepest – since Brian Kelly’s first two seasons in South Bend.

A remarkable occurrence presented over the last four seasons of Notre Dame football, dating back to and including a run to 12-1 in 2012:

Head coach Brian Kelly found a way to win 39 of 52 games played (75 percent) without the benefit of a reliable third cornerback.

Passing plays and passing yards are the norm in the modern game, and Irish defenses either thrived (2012, ’13) or faltered (since) without a classic Nickel defender among their ranks.

-- In 2015, Notre Dame abandoned its plans for a Nickel package – injuries and a resulting lack of cornerback depth chief among the reasons.

-- One year prior, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s Nickel wasn’t a cornerback – there wasn’t one worthy of the role – but rather a playmaking safety that thrived near scrimmage rather than in coverage. Matthias Farley made plays in close…opposing offenses did so downfield.

-- In 2013 under former coordinator Bob Diaco, freshman Cole Luke first took on the challenge, but was eventually replaced by…no one. Again, no reliable Nickel package was the norm.

-- During the magical defensive season of 2012, the Irish used rough-and-tumble safety Elijah Shumate as their Nickel, but in reality, a little something called “a pass rush,” one that came from the nation’s best front four (31 of the squad’s 34 sacks), was the defense’s chief weapon against the pass.

-- But 2010 and 2011, Brian Kelly’s first two seasons at the helm in South Bend, the Nickel thrived, be it in the former of former cornerback turned safety Jamoris Slaughter or current Buffalo Bills defender Robert Blanton.

Now the current crop of Irish defensive backs hopes to reignite a role and sub package that hasn’t presented as a reliable defensive option since many among them were finishing middle school.

Matt Cashore /

Notre Dame’s best defensive back is senior Cole Luke – and judging from practice viewings to date, that’s not only an inarguable opinion, it’s not close.

Pending the play of unproven but talented upperclassmen Max Redfield and Drue Tranquill at safety, the squad’s next best DB might be a rookie, at least relatively speaking, as redshirt-freshman Shaun Crawford, sophomore position-neophyte Nick Coleman, and a handful of true freshmen/redshirts continue to compete for Nickel, two, and three-deep roles.

“Nick Coleman is having good camp,” said Kelly of the sophomore that tasted action at times last season. “Nick is maturing to the level that we were — we tried to fast track him last year. At (Archbishop) Alter, he was really an offensive player playing defense. He was a running back. But we loved his skills and his traits.

“It was a lot of learning for him (last year). At times it was an up and down struggle for him with confidence but he’s a lot more confident as a player.”

Reasons for Coleman’s ascent from deep reserve to potential starter in the Nickel package (at left cornerback, as the aforementioned Crawford has the Nickel role on lock down) are many:

-- Potential starter Nick Watkins remains sidelined by a broken humerus and subsequent surgery during the spring.
-- Former starter Devin Butler is also out after two off-season foot surgeries, though Coleman likely would have beaten out the senior special teamer.
-- Coleman’s own improvement and singular focus since last season.

“At the end of the season I took the mindset that I’m going to compete for that spot,” said Coleman of the opening opposite Luke, the latter set to be a three-year starter on the right side. “It was my mindset all summer and still is.

Asked where he improved most, Coleman focused outside the lines, with “focus” being the operative word.

“Maintaining my focus throughout practice and in the meeting rooms,” he offered. “As a freshman, it was easy to get distracted, think about school or personal life. I’ve done a better job of maintaining my focus and that’s helped my game in every phase. Last year it was easy to go off into wonderland, but I’ve (eradicated) that and hopefully it’ll show in my play.”

It has to date, and though Crawford will likely win the left cornerback role, the competition between the classmates seems closer than expected, at least during the media’s six hours of practice viewing.

“My mindset is just to compete for that spot,” said Coleman. “(Crawford) moves inside in Nickel and I come in, but I’m competing for the starting (LCB) spot.

“Last year helped me get all the little idiosyncrasies of the corner position down. A year of playing gives you more confidence; you know what’s going to happen. You have a feeling of what the offense is going to do and you know the defense better.”

Matt Cashore /

Notre Dame’s current cornerback depth chart will likely remain in flux throughout August (and perhaps early September), but at present, the following have seemingly emerged:

LCB: Crawford, Coleman, freshman Donte Vaughn
RCB: Luke, redshirt-freshman Ashton White or true freshman Julian Love, true freshman Troy Pride.

(Watkins and Butler will rejoin the fray in September and October, respectively, though a redshirt season or seasons, appears more likely.)

VanGorder’s unit finished a middling 57th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season, though that was much better than the 84th-place showing of his first season in South Bend. Under Diaco, pass efficiency defense rankings were 38th (2013), 16th (2012), 38th (2011) and 25th (2010), respectively.

The squad’s depth and wealth of cornerback talent promises fewer open airways in 2016.
“Donte Vaughn has done a really nice job, and Julian Love,” said Kelly of his two freshmen competitors. “Those three guys (with Coleman) have really shown us that we can put them on the field against Texas.

“They keep developing the point that we feel really good there without Nick (Watkins) and Devin (Butler).”

That’s been Coleman’s charge since the conclusion of his rookie campaign.

“I want to be (viewed as) a guy that can be dependable,” he said. “Where they have me now doesn’t matter, it’ll sort itself out. Just a guy that is dependable, ‘Nick is out there, we can lean on him.’”

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