Eureka! The Notre Dame Football has discovered cornerback depth.
None of the squad’s seven potential cornerback competitors exhaust their collegiate eligibility until at least 2018 and the position boasts an oddity – not only for the program in South Bend but one that encompasses all of college football – six returning Irish cornerbacks have started at least one contest.
Of course, only one among that sextet has started more than four contests, so calling them “veterans” would be a stretch, but that’s the reality for a position group in which its best players include three true sophomores (Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, and Troy Pride), one redshirt-sophomore (Shaun Crawford), and a redshirt-junior (Nick Watkins).
That’s about all there is at present, right? Upside?
When blessed with good health, Crawford has looked “better” than his fellow competitors above, but the injury-cursed corner has suffered both a torn ACL and blown out Achilles tendon since August 2015.
The unit appears replete with future playmakers, and any defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator worth his salt should be able to get something from the Watkins/Pride/Vaughn/Love quartet, even if Crawford doesn’t approach his true form through the season’s opening month.
Daily competition between the healthy foursome should be intense.
Crawford’s playmaking potential remains theoretical, at least until he can show the burst and acceleration he possessed prior to tearing his Achilles last September.
Love was very good as a freshman over the final two months of 2016. The same can be said for Pride in spurts, and for Vaughn. But the necessary qualifier of “freshman” applies to each. They were likely deemed “good” because they played better than could be reasonably expected for freshmen in a defense that was saddled with a late-September change of coordinators.
No longer freshmen, inconsistency can no longer be tolerated, especially for a regime auditioning for future seasons.
Watkins returns this spring 11 months removed from surgery to repair a broken humerus. He’s played less than 100 meaningful collegiate snaps from scrimmage entering his senior (redshirt-junior) campaign, and though the lion’s share came vs. Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl – a game in which he played as well as could have been reasonably expected – he was nonetheless deemed to be “hanging on for dear life” as a tackler by head coach Brian Kelly.
In light of his injury, strength gains remain necessary despite his upperclassmen status.
Junior Nick Coleman started at the outset of 2016 but was roasted in Austin (and South Bend) and subsequently benched. He let that affect his special teams play as well and was thus buried on both depth charts as the Irish attempted (unsuccessfully) to dig from a 1-3 early-season hole.
Redshirt-sophomore Ashton White concluded his sophomore training camp in the Fulton County clink. Then, after showing well early in September on special teams, lost the bulk of his 2016 campaign to a wrist/arm injury.
White is expected to get a look at safety this spring but he’ll doubtless be a member of the special teams going forward. Coleman is likewise a candidate for a position switch – perhaps, safety, perhaps to the other side of scrimmage – as he’s unlikely to beat out the talented quintet of corners above him.
With an accompanying pass rush, and in good health, Notre Dame’s enviable cornerback quintet of Crawford, Love, Watkins, Vaughn, and Pride will make plays on the ball throughout the 12-game slate and serve as one of the main reasons the Irish rebound after a horrendous 2016 campaign.
But if new coordinator Mike Elko’s defense is bereft of a consistent (or timely) pass rush to aid the secondary’s cause? Well, you’ve seen what happens to cornerbacks forced to cover for more than three seconds in the modern, pass-happy era of college football.