Notre Dame has five cornerbacks on its spring depth chart – but it has six players on its 2017 roster that have started at least one game at the position at the collegiate level.
But with three true sophomores, a senior that hasn’t played in 15 months (and rarely played prior), plus a junior that has appeared in just two college contests, cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght can hardly rest on his teaching laurels this spring.
Call it seasoned inexperience.
“I think last year they gained valuable experience,” said Lyght of a 12-game set that saw a quintet of cornerbacks start opposite the since graduated Cole Luke.
“It was a growing experience for everybody but the time on the field was well spent. For us our strength and conditioning program has done a great job in the off-season of developing these guys and you can see their bodies changing. I think we’ll have much more physical play this year on the back end due to our strength and development.”
The pecking order at present appears as follows:
Boundary: Julian Love, Donte Vaughn
Field Cornerback: Nick Watkins, Troy Pride
Recovering: Shaun Crawford
(Save for a position change, no freshmen cornerbacks will join the fray this fall. The lone senior Watkins has two seasons of eligibility remaining. )
“Shaun is limited with the Achilles; we want to bring him along slowly,” said Lyght of Crawford’s surgery that truncated his 2016 season midway through Game No. 2. “Maybe toward the end of spring ball we can get him in some 7-on-7. He’s doing individual drills now.
“He’s had a tough run of it (Crawford tore his ACL in mid-August 2015.) We want to make sure we take care of him and bring him along slow so he doesn’t have any other setbacks.”
Also back from a lost season in 2016 is long-armed senior Nick Watkins.
“I’m really pleased with Nick’s progress,” said Lyght of Watkins whose broken humerus 12 months ago ended his 2016 campaign. “His leadership stands out. He’s stepped forward in a leadership role. Being much more vocal, challenging his teammates to get better and his consistency has gotten a lot better.”
Watkins hasn’t played since an emergency start against Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. That season (2015), he rarely saw competitive scrimmage time.
“I feel like it’s something I can build off of,” said Watkins of his three-tackle effort against the Buckeyes, one that included a pass breakup in the end zone. “I played well and hopefully this year is going to be big.”
A HEALTHY HELPING OF SECONDS?
Though Watkins and sophomore Julian Love have not locked down starting jobs (a healthy Crawford will doubtless have his say in the matter), it’s apparent both have a leg up at present on the sophomore tandem of Vaughn and Pride.
“Troy’s working hard,” said Lyght of his three-game starter last fall. “With him running track (this semester), it took away from some of his development physically in the weight room. He needs to do a little catching up there.
“Donte (4 starts, 7 passes defended, 1 end zone INT) has been struggling with a back issue so he hasn’t been able to finish practice because of back spasms. For Donte, mental and physical toughness is going to be crucial and for Troy, strength and power is going to be crucial.”
For Love (eight starts to conclude 2016) it appears more of the same – albeit at a much higher level – is expected.
“He’s done a great job ever since he step foot on campus. Really does a good job of pushing himself,” said Lyght. “The thing for his development is when he’s uncomfortable – because he was so successful in high school, won a couple of state titles and he was always the best player on the field.
“Now that’s different where he’s not the best player on the field so he has to rely more on his fundamentals and technique and he has to be proficient in the execution of those.”
Love forced and recovered a fumble, broke up four passes, intercepted another, recorded a QB Hurry, and registered two tackles for loss as a rookie last fall, finishing with 45 stops.
“He’s always had a lot of confidence in himself and I think early on as a young player, when you have that success right away it does give you confidence,” Lyght continued.
“Julian can tackle in space, he can cover. Obviously we want him to get better with his man-to-man techniques and in a leadership role because he is a young player and he’s going to play a lot for us. I think he’s come a long, long way.”
CHANGE IN SCHEME, SCENE
Two-game starter Nick Coleman has moved from left cornerback where he struggled last September to field safety this spring. As for the left cornerback today?
There’s no such thing.
“The college game is a field/boundary game,” said Lyght of the defense’s return to the alignment used from 2010-2013 under the guidance of Bob Diaco. “I think if you get them comfortable playing boundary, playing field, they can get a better feel for the game and the route combinations.”
The field cornerback lines up to the wide side with more ground to cover; the boundary is to the near side, with less.
“It’s not like the NFL where the hashes are in the middle of the field and it’s a left/right game,” said Lyght. “Last time we won a national championship at this school we were a boundary/field defense. I played field corner, Stan Smagala played boundary corner.”
It works the same at safety.
“Absolutely it helps with communication,” Lyght offered. “Then you get a comfort level of sight and formations and spacing.”
According to Lyght, the entire lot of defensive backs and linebackers should enjoy better communication due in part to one simple on field tweak:
“I think Coach (Mike) Elko’s system puts players in a position to be successful,” Lyght said of the first-year Irish defensive coordinator. “We’re going with one-word terminology so everything is really fast.
“The communication has to be there pre-snap and post-snap for the exchanges (crossing receivers) for the combos (high/low) for leverage terms, how we’re playing different routes. The young guys are doing a great job with communication.”
Lyght offered that his new role – unlike in 2015-16, he coaches only the cornerbacks, not the entire secondary – communication from coach-to-player will be much better as well.
“When you have the entire secondary it’s tough to watch all the film. What I found last year with our time restraints we didn’t get enough to watch 1-on-1 tape with the corners. The lack of time really hurt in the season.
“Now splitting up (Elko coaches the safeties), we can watch way more film. Everything is so position specific that it makes it a lot easier when you watch a lot more film to help them get better with fundamentals, technique, and execution.”
Fundamentals and technique are every program’s catchwords each spring.
It’s the execution of those learned skills that will serve as Notre Dame’s barometer next fall.