SOUTH BEND, Ind. — At this point, Notre Dame players are almost desensitized to seeing one of their teammates go down with an injury.
Notre Dame players are disappointed to see yet another injury, of course, but it’s happened so many times — 12, to be exact — that there’s a reflexive confidence in the guys who will step in. In this case, it’s junior Devin Butler, sophomore Nick Watkins and freshman Nick Coleman replacing senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who suffered a fractured tibia in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over Boston College.
“They’ve done a really good job,” safety and captain Matthias Farley said. “I know they’ve met a whole bunch extra. All three of them are very, very focused and they’re pushing each other, which is a really good thing so there’s that competition there between the three of them.”
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It’s a different position, of course, but those are three guys Notre Dame passed over when re-assessing its nickel corner job earlier this month. Instead of inserting Butler, Watkins or Coleman into the lineup, redshirt sophomore receiver Torii Hunter Jr. was given cross-training duties on defense.
But with Russell out for a minimum of six weeks — his only chance at playing again this season would be in the College Football Playoff championship game, and even then that looks to be a longshot — Notre Dame will have to rely on that trio of cornerbacks since another one isn’t walking through the door.
“We think all of them can contribute and not necessarily have to rely on one guy,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We think all three of them as a combination might be the best way to go.”
Quarterback DeShone Kizer has thrown against those three corners in practice this week. He described Coleman as a “ratty, real fast guy” and Watkins as a cerebral corner who’s able to identify routes well. Butler started two games in 2014 in place of a banged-up Cody Riggs and had an interception and four pass break-ups, though his struggles against Arizona State and USC contributed to those bloated road losses.
“I think we won’t lose a step on defense,” Kizer said. “KeiVarae is a very good player and it sucks to have him down, but just as the rest of this team has stepped in as a next man situation, we’ll be able to step in and play some really good defense.”
Notre Dame will need the combination of Butler, Watkins and Coleman to lock down the corner position opposite Cole Luke against an efficient Stanford air attack that features some long, athletic targets like 6-foot-4, 227-pounder Devon Cajuste (31 targets, 20 catches, 232 yards) and 6-foot-3, 212-pounder Francis Owusu (18 targets, 13 catches, 175 yards), plus 6-foot-1, 189 pound leading receiver Michael Rector (44 targets, 27 catches, 423 yards).
The Cardinal offense largely operates off its ground game, but quarterback Kevin Hogan is adept at getting the ball to his receivers, especially when star running back Christian McCaffrey softens up the defense. In a game that’s likely to be both high-scoring and close, having Butler, Watkins or Coleman step up and, at the least, not be a liability should help keep Notre Dame competitive as it eyes an 11-1 record.
“it’s always sad when a guy gets hurt and KeiVarae, he’s been playing well for us,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “It’s tough, but we moved forward and we play for guys like that.”