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Crawford’s return would help Notre Dame check Michigan’s WRs

Hear from head coaches Brian Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, as Chris Simms and Ahmed Fareed reveal the keys to Saturday night's matchup.

This will sound very similar to thoughts preceding Notre Dame’s matchup with USC: The Irish hope to reincorporate senior running back Jafar Armstrong into the game plan while limiting the opposition’s dangerous receivers despite a depleted secondary.

If news must be new, this is all somehow still pertinent, because Armstrong’s health rendered him ineffectual against the Trojans and because fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford may return to help No. 8 Notre Dame’s defensive backfield this weekend at No. 19 Michigan (7:30 ET; ABC).

Irish head coach Brian Kelly — notoriously optimistic in public about injury recovery timelines — fueled the Crawford possibility Monday. Admittedly, Crawford has proven to be a fast healer time and time again, so the elbow he dislocated against Virginia was never going to sideline him for too long.

“Shaun is involved in everything from 7-on-7 to 1-on-1 drills,” Kelly said. “He’ll be involved in everything and continue to see what his comfort level his. But we expect him to play. We’ll see at what level he can play at.

“He’s a guy that I wouldn’t count out of being a contributor in some fashion, being around the ball next Saturday night.”

Crawford’s return would bolster a secondary light on competent and proven cornerbacks. Against USC, Notre Dame leaned on three safeties throughout the game to keep a trio of NFL-quality receivers in check. Michigan’s route-runners are not at that level, but they are not far behind. Limiting them will again be the defense’s primary objective, and again senior cornerback Donte Vaughn will be involved.

“Donte Vaughn will be playing against Michigan, guaranteed,” Kelly said.

This seemed to be an indication Vaughn is using up his final year of eligibility, but that was based on a misunderstanding. He has already appeared in only three games this season, not four as previously believed.

A participation report mistake of that nature is not uncommon, though consistently frustrating. But with that in mind, expect this to be Vaughn’s last action of 2019. It makes sense, activating a lengthy coverage man against the Wolverines, even if an embattled one. Michigan has four receivers that will worry the Irish.

That said, the Wolverines’ offensive approach does not differ as drastically from a conventional one as the Trojans’ did. An “Air Raid” offense is more troublesome to adapt to than a typical spread look.

“The Air Raid would be a much different approach to how you’re philosophically going to move the football,” Kelly said. “This one requires, from our perspective, less of a change to our structure defensively than it did in preparing for USC.”

In other words, this should not be a weekend when Notre Dame rotates through defensive sub-package after defensive sub-package, avoiding its base personnel as much as possible. Although, defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s piecemeal approach proved effective against the Trojans.

In this instance, the Irish will focus more on varying their coverages.

“You’re double-zoning, playing some bail, doing some things where you’re keeping the corners over the top with some help underneath,” Kelly said. “You can’t just line up in one coverage there because they’re going to win some of those matchups.

“Giving the corners some help, varying some zone and man looks outside is very, very important, and certainly not giving (Wolverines senior quarterback Shea) Patterson the same looks every time. He’s a smart quarterback.”

Armstrong’s return from an abdominal muscle tear consisted of one rush failing to get back to the line of scrimmage and one blown pass protection. He was clearly not yet ready, though it is hard to fault him for trying to hurry back to face USC. Two weeks later, the expectations preceding the idle week are back afoot.

“Jafar is going to be an important part of our game plan, so much as it was just really kind of getting him through a game situation and getting the taste of it for USC, it’s now a full-go for him,” Kelly said. “This week will be him being factored into our game plan, playing a prominent role, and I think he’ll have an impact.”

To make it a trifecta of repeated storylines from earlier in the season, Notre Dame is spending significant practice time working on its silent snap count before heading to Ann Arbor in front of 107,000 fans. As any Irish fan will remember, this work did not yield positive results at Georgia when senior quarterback Ian Book repeatedly reverted to muscle memory, the clap count, and thus led to miscommunications sparking false starts.

Kelly put the onus for that mistake on himself for not working more on the silent counts in practice. To some degree, the reasoning for Book’s mistake made sense: In practice, he knew the specific point of the drill was to work on the snap count, he was focused on it; in Athens, he was focused on the coverages and the play calls and did not keep the silent count in mind.

“We started our non-verbal cadence last week,” Kelly said. “I learned that’s something that requires much more repetition, so that was learned. We’re not going to make that same mistake twice.”