SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A tried-and-true coaching strategy is to identify your opponent’s weakness and try to exploit it. Until he proves otherwise, Nick Coleman is that weakness on a Brian VanGorder defense that still has to redeem itself after that rough season-opening showing at Texas.
So expect Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State side to throw Coleman’s way quite a bit Saturday night, even if quarterback Tyler O’Connor only has thrown 72 passes in his college career and the Spartans are without last year’s top two targeted receivers (Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings).
“They're going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And Nick knows that, and we're quite aware of that situation.”
Texas went at Coleman on that season-opening night in Austin, with Shane Buechele completing a 72-yard touchdown to John Burt on one of those throws. It could’ve been two explosive scores had Burt not dropped Buechele’s first quarter throw after blowing past Coleman, too. After Coleman was flagged for pass interference in the third quarter, Notre Dame shifted Shaun Crawford to outside corner and threw freshman Julian Love in at nickel to get Coleman out of the game.
But with Crawford out for the season after tearing his Achilles’ tendon against Nevada, the spotlight is back on Coleman, the 5-foot-11, 195 pound sophomore who played his high school ball with Irish quarterback Malik Zaire and receiver Chris Finke.
“Stuff like that, you just gotta hit head on,” Coleman said. “I’m ready for the challenge. You can’t run away from it, so you just gotta get your mind right every week and work Monday through Friday, get better through those days so when it’s gametime, you don’t blink, you don’t flinch.”
Coleman said he was able to flush his struggles against Texas after the first practice of Nevada week, which is a good quality for a cornerback to have. Technique was the problem against Texas, Coleman said, and he feels like he’s been able to correct those issues.
Still, against Nevada, Coleman slipped on a throw that wound up setting up the Wolf Pack’s only points against the Irish first-team defense (a chip-shot field goal). But Kelly praised how Coleman responded after being thrown back into a featured role in the defense following Crawford’s injury in the first quarter.
“I think Nick has showed himself that he's up to the task and he's going to continue to work to get better at it,” Kelly said. “I think everybody knows that when you lose a player like Crawford and a new guy comes in, they're going to pick on him. But I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.”
That positive reinforcement coming from Kelly and the Irish coaching staff is central to their efforts to get Coleman ready, especially because there may not be much in the way of depth behind him. Freshman Donte Vaughn played his first college snaps in garbage time against Nevada, and junior Nick Watkins is, at best, a few weeks away from returning from a fractured forearm suffered in April (the worst case for Watkins is a medical redshirt season).
So Kelly’s message to Coleman isn’t one of doubt or frustration based on the Texas game.
Instead, it’s: “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,” Kelly said.
While Kelly told Notre Dame’s website that Coleman, using an online mood-rating dashboard called CoachMePlus, rated himself as a “one” after Texas (that’s as low a rating as the system has), Coleman said that was mostly due to him being sore and tired from the quick turnaround of a Sunday night game. While that evening against the Longhorns wasn’t a good one, Coleman said it didn’t have any long-lasting effects on his confidence.
So Coleman is embracing the target that’ll be on his back Saturday night and the rest of the season. That’s the right kind of mentality — but can it lead to the right kind of play Notre Dame needs to keep its defense afloat?
“Corners are usually considered either crazy or cocky — it’s just the confidence that they have,” Coleman said. “And I don’t think I’m too different.”