SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Four years ago, Notre Dame lost a starting cornerback and safety within the season’s first three weeks, replacing both those players — Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter — with two inexperienced underclassmen who hadn’t played defense at the college level before.
KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley quickly developed into reliable pieces on that 2012 Irish team that reached the BCS Championship. It was a major success for Bob Diaco’s defensive coaching staff to not only get both of those guys ready, but in a position where they could be effective members of what had to be an elite defense to power an undefeated regular season.
Notre Dame’s 2016 defense is in a similar position, having lost a starting safety (Max Redfield) in August and a starting cornerback (Shaun Crawford) to a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon last week. Replacing those two players with underclassmen is a challenge, but it’s not an excuse for Brian VanGorder & Co.
“Every year you're going to lose key players and you have to be able to prepare for that going into camp and know that somebody is going to be called upon to step up,” coach Brian Kelly said.
Notre Dame’s secondary depth chart is peppered with underclassmen. Freshman Devin Studstill looks locked in as the starting free safety, with fellow freshman Jalen Elliott backing him up. Crawford’s injury thrust sophomore Nick Coleman back into a starting role at outside corner, where he struggled against Texas, and will push freshmen Donte Vaughn (outside corner) and Julian Love (nickel) onto the field more often as well.
The most pressing need here is to get Coleman ready to play every week, especially given the up-in-the-air status of junior Nick Watkins, who could miss the entire season after breaking his arm during spring practice in April.
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After being burned twice against Texas — only one of which went for an explosive touchdown thanks to Longhorns receiver John Burt dropping quarterback Shane Buechele’s throw on the other — Coleman’s confidence was shaken.
“We have a thing called CoachMePlus, which is a (online) dashboard where players rate their mood, with one being the lowest and five being the highest,” Kelly told Notre Dame’s athletics website. “Nick Coleman, for example, on Monday rated himself a one.”
But Kelly praised Coleman for his improved technique against Nevada, though he did fall down on a play that led to the Wolf Pack hitting a chip-shot field goal for their only points against the first-team Irish defense on Saturday. Coleman knows he’s going to be targeted by opposing teams over these next 10 games, and the onus is on the Irish coaching staff to get him — or someone else — to the point where those disastrous plays we saw against Texas are a thing of the past.
Part of those efforts will be to rely on the front seven to power the defense, as well as deploying fewer exotic nickel packages and perhpas less man coverage to keep things simpler for the inexperienced secondary.
“Look, Nick Coleman had a poor first game,” Kelly said. “He would be the first one to admit it, but what we did is went right back to work during the week to get Nick Coleman to be ready to step back in, and I think the work we did with Nick Coleman during the week put him in a good position to have a good game against Nevada.
“And I think that's coaching and I think that's teaching, and we did that in 2012 and we're going to have to do that in '16 and '17 and '18, and that's what you have to do to prepare for that next man in. Because you're going to have key injuries and you have to prepare for those scenarios instead of saying, you stunk today you're on the bench.
“No, we're going to need you, Nick, and we're going to need you to bounce back and here is how you're going to do it. Nick now finds himself in the starting position playing against Michigan State in a key game.”