On a warm early-September night in Austin, Nick Coleman found himself an island – inhabited by a party of one -- early in the third quarter as Notre Dame kicked off its 2016 season against the Texas Longhorns.
Lined up directly across from Coleman was a wide receiver by the name of John Burt, who also doubled as one of the top 10 sprinters in the nation.
In an instant, Burt was by Coleman, and when Shane Buechele’s perfectly thrown pass nestled into the hands of the Longhorn speedster, the end result was a 72-yard touchdown pass.
It was the beginning of a trial by fire that would scorch Coleman a few times in the month of September as the Irish surrendered 36 points or more in three of the first four games of a 1-3 start.
Coleman started just one more game for the Irish in ’16 – versus Michigan State two weeks later – as confusion reigned throughout an Irish defense that would lose its defensive coordinator four games into the season.
“A big learning moment,” summarized Coleman of the play captured in front of 102,315 screaming Longhorns fans in Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. “If you want to play college football at a high level, you’re definitely going to be baptized and be down at some point.
“What I tried to take from that was how to handle adversity. Stuff like that is going to happen to a DB. It’s how you handle it.”
It was a rough month for Coleman, who lost his starting job and ceded playing time to a corps of freshman cornerbacks such as Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., all of whom played more as the season progressed while Coleman was forced into a special teams role and limited snaps at cornerback.
“That’s (all) part about handling adversity,” said Coleman, a 6-foot-0, 187-pounder junior-to-be from Dayton, Ohio. “You’re not going to be able to control your situation completely at certain times in your life. You control what you can control, and that’s what I tried to do for the rest of the season.
“You can’t get down on yourself because the team is also having a very tough year. You use it as motivation and as a learning tool.”
Those experiences – mixed with a clean slate offered by the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Elko – has led Coleman to a circuitous yet advantageous move to free safety, where he has been running with the No. 1 unit since the start of spring drills.
“Our evaluation of Nick Coleman is that he’s going to be a dynamic player at the position,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Coleman’s move to the last rung of the defense.
“We all know that he possesses the athletic ability. We want to see if he can translate the other skills at that safety position, i.e., tackling and picking up the scheme in terms of how you play off the hash.”
While Kelly stops short of declaring Coleman the starter at free safety when the 2017 season commences, the on-field evidence definitively points in that direction.
“I wouldn’t put it that way, that (he’s the best) option (at safety),” Kelly said. “But we put somebody there to take first-team reps if we feel he can help us win a championship, and Nick Coleman has convinced us he’s there to stay.”
Young talent abounds at safety for the Irish, just as it does at cornerback where upperclassmen Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford also will play a significant role.
Sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are gifted safety prospects who saw some-to-considerable action in 2016. Early-entry freshman Isaiah Robertson adds to the mix, as does junior Nicco Fertitta, a physical player with limited range.
So far this spring, Studstill and Elliott appear to be battling it out for the strong safety spot, and until further notice, Coleman is the man in the middle on the back end of the Irish defense.
“For me to tell you today that he’s our starter, he’s our guy, we need more body of work,” Kelly said. “But he won’t be moving anywhere else. He’ll be at safety.”
As a former cornerback, Coleman brings athletic skills that translate well to the safety position.
“(We gain) the athleticism that he possesses at that position,” Kelly said. “Somebody that can really track the ball. A guy that can play the middle of the field and cover some ground and space back there.”
Coleman put Kelly’s words on display during Notre Dame’s seventh practice of the spring. Starting a play from the deep middle of the field, Coleman ranged to his right to help on coverage against Notre Dame’s best receiver, Equanimeous St. Brown, ultimately helping knock the pass away.
“We’ve got some physical safeties,” Kelly said. “But profiling somebody that has corner skills playing the safety position, he brings a different skillset to the position.”
It was that skillset that caught Elko’s eye as he pored over film from the 2016 season. Elko already knew that he wanted to move strong safety Drue Tranquill up from the last line of defense to the Rover position, which meant the safety positions would be inhabited by a bunch of talented yet young players.
Elko needed someone with some experience -- even if it wasn’t all positive -- the athleticism to cover ground like a centerfielder, and the savvy to rebound and learn from some negative experiences.
Before Coleman had even met Elko in person, he called his new coordinator to get the lowdown on moving to safety after Kelly had discussed the move with Coleman during the end-of-the-season exit interviews.
“As soon as Coach Elko was hired, I gave him a call,” said Coleman, who finished his sophomore season with 17 tackles, a tackle for loss, one pass defensed and one pass broken up.
“I saw what he was about, tried to dive into that relationship, and attack the safety position the best I could. He knows what he’s talking about, and the way he explains everything, it’s definitely a lot clearer.
“He’s a good coach. He’ll ask you if you’re getting it. He’s not going to jump on you if you don’t get it. He’s going to make sure you completely understand what’s going on.”
As it turns out, Coleman already knew of Elko but didn’t realize it.
“He actually recruited me when he was at Bowling Green,” Coleman said. “I didn’t (remember) that, but once he told me, I was like, ‘Oh, right, right, right.’ He’s a great guy and I’m happy he’s with us.”
Kelly said early in the spring that the move of Coleman to safety would be contingent upon his ability to tackle in space. The athleticism to track the football in the air was a given, but could he be the consistent tackler they needed at safety? That’s where Elko’s insistence on tackling fundamentals has aided Coleman.
“Any time a corner switches to safety, he’s automatically got an advantage in terms of athletic ability,” Coleman said. “No knock on our safeties, but it’s definitely guarding a different bunch of guys.
“You’re (covering) tight ends now, big slots, so it’s easier to move around and work the entire field and not just your quarter. Knowing all the different run fits that a safety has to be responsible for (is the challenge).”
So far, so good. Coleman has given the back end of the Irish defense a player with the physical assets to succeed and a track record of adversity that has hardened this talented athlete.
“Ever since we got back here in January, everything has felt like a clean slate and new life,” Coleman said. “It’s been a great transition and I’m happy where I am because it’s so much easier to make plays.
“I have an opportunity to make an impact on every play. At corner, you only get thrown to six or 10 times a game. Now you’re in the box, reading the quarterback, he’s reading you…It’s a lot more fun.”
The experiences at Texas and throughout September were no day at the beach for Coleman. But trial by fire is often times the greatest teacher, in addition to Elko, who not only coordinates Notre Dame’s defense, but serves as the Irish safeties coach.
“It was definitely something different than I wasn’t expecting to hear that,” said Coleman of the move to safety. “But we’re coming off a 4-8 season, we’re trying to do anything and look anywhere possible to come up from that. I accepted it with open arms.
“The good thing about Coach Elko is he’s always going to accept you with open arms. He’s never (too) busy and he’s easy to talk to.”
Eight practices through spring drills, Coleman is taking nothing for granted. He doesn’t assume he’ll be the starting free safety. But with each passing day, it feels more and more like his position.
“The more comfortable you get, the more confident you get,” Coleman said. “The more reps you get, all that comes together. I definitely feel a lot more confident in my play, my decision-making, and just overall.”
Sometimes leadership is derived through the tough times. Coleman, to a large degree, earned the first shot at free safety this spring through the hard work and leadership he displayed during off-season strength and conditioning drills.
Coleman knows tough times. He also knows that it feels like the pendulum is swinging in the other direction.
“You don’t want to carry yourself like a backup,” Coleman said. “I’ve done my best to be a great leader to our unit and our defense as a whole. I’m a third-year guy, so leadership comes with it.”
So, too, may a starting job at free safety.