It took less than two quarters of football to apply the adage, “What you see is not necessarily what you get” to Brian Kelly’s 2016 Fighting Irish.
What the media saw in August Training camp, and what the Irish coach staff graded every day, was cornerback Nick Coleman breaking up passes downfield. They saw the sophomore disrupt and break on short routes, aggressively support the run, and then have the confidence to tell teammates about it thereafter.
“Chatter,” he called it at the time. “Just friendly chatter.”
That was Nick Coleman when it mattered, sure – because without a strong August, a young player has little opportunity for playing time in the fall – but clearly August is not when it matters most.
When it mattered most, at Texas and against Nevada? 13 passes were thrown at the wide receiver Coleman was charged with defending – 9 of the passes were completed including a 15-yard defensive pass interference penalty in Austin, one that ultimately landed Coleman a spot on the sidelines.
A whopping 191 yards and a touchdown have accrued against his coverage to date.
Somewhere in the middle of the two Colemans – the August up-and-comer and the early September target – lies the truth.
Coleman earned his first career start in Notre Dame’s season-opening loss at Texas due to a scheme change. With Coleman manning the left cornerback spot, classmate Shaun Crawford shifted inside so the Irish could put a faster defense on the field. Five defensive backs were deemed necessary to negate Texas’ up-tempo approach.
The tactic failed. So too, unexpectedly, did Coleman.
Though that defensive strategy won’t likely be revisited anytime soon, a Week 2 season-ending injury to Crawford has already afforded Coleman a chance at redemption.
Not the way he wanted it to go down, but redemption nonetheless.
“Shaun is one of my best friends, so that was hard, but in the heat of the game you just have to keep going,” said Coleman of Crawford’s torn Achilles tendon suffered in the first quarter vs. Nevada. “It was not the way I wanted to get back on the field. But it definitely opened up the opportunity and I wasn’t flinching at all.”
Coleman endured a coverage lapse against the Wolf Pack as well, slipping on a 44-yard catch downfield as he prepared (in good position) to leap for the ball.
It wasn’t as damaging as the 72-yard touchdown authored by Texas speedster John Burt, but it does serve as another teaching moment in his young career. And there will be more, because Michigan State, and Duke, and Syracuse, and everyone else will focus the bulk of their passing plans in Coleman’s direction rather than against sound senior Cole Luke on the right side.
“You just have to hit it head on. I’m ready for the challenge,” said Coleman of that reality. “You can’t run away from it. Get your mind right every week and work Monday through Friday. Get better through those days so when it’s game time, you don’t blink, you don’t flinch.”
It’s that attitude that endeared Coleman to Kelly, both during the former’s recruitment and after his rough outing in the Lone Star State.
“You can’t give up on a guy like Nick Coleman,” said Kelly before the Irish faced Nevada. “He’s too talented and he’s got too much pride. It’s the guys that lack personal pride, the guys that are easy to give in. Those are the guys that we should give up on – if they’re going to give up on themselves.
“Those are the guys I try not to recruit.”
Coleman noted his technique was an issue vs. Burt, one of the nation’s fastest players, who, it must be noted, dropped a certain touchdown in excess of 80 yards after running by Coleman earlier in the contest.
In press coverage, not only contact at scrimmage but thereafter the exact moment a cornerback turns and runs (“bails”) is crucial. Coleman bailed too late, and Burt ran by him as a result.
“We asked him to play a technique and he didn’t trust his own techniques,” said Kelly. “Here’s the great thing about Nick Coleman: He’s won a state championship. He’s a winner. He’s got a lot of pride. His state (of mind) was not great on Tuesday (post Texas). He was feeling a little bit sorry about himself. I said, ‘Nick, this is where you turn it on and compete.’”
His second chance is at hand.
“Everything comes down to fundamentals and effort. That’s what I’m still focusing on,” said Coleman.
“It’s going to be a 15-round fight,” he said of the incoming Spartans. “There’s no love lost between us. Big hits. Getting my mind right, getting ready for a physical game and playing the deep ball.”
Opportunities to that end are guaranteed.