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Losing Crawford creates domino effect in Notre Dame’s secondary

Notre Dame v Texas

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 04: Shaun Crawford #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the ball after making an interception during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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There are two sets of effects to an injury like Shaun Crawford’s torn right ACL. In a situation like his, the personal nature of the injury is more poignant than the already-severe usual. In four years at Notre Dame, the senior cornerback has now seen three seasons ended by injury.

When healthy, Crawford has shown his undeniable talent. That talent had him in position to start from the first day as a freshman at nickel back before a torn ACL (then his left knee) sidelined him in August. Crawford worked his way back to health, and started the first two games of 2016.

In that opener, Crawford notched his first career interception and nearly returned it for a touchdown, setting up a score to bring the Irish within two possessions of Texas. A quarter later, he scooped up a blocked point after attempt and ran it the length of the field to turn a two-point deficit into a tie game, forcing overtime. A week later, Crawford ruptured an Achilles.

If possible, that playmaking was even more apparent last year, once again healthy. Crawford made 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one fumble forced and five passes broken up. Whenever Notre Dame needed a defensive shift in momentum in September, it seemed to be Crawford who provided it.

None of this is lionizing the lost. Crawford really is that good when healthy, which is why losing another season stings even more for the senior.

“Very disappointed,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday to describe Crawford. “... Your heart is broken for a kid that’s worked so hard to get on the field and has been set back by injury. It’s difficult for him, but he’s handling it the best he can given the circumstances.”

Recovering mentally and physically from one torn ACL is tough enough. Coming back from a ruptured Achilles, one of the most-debilitating injuries for explosive players, deserves even more credit. Now, Crawford has to climb a figurative Everest again, and no matter what the on-field effects are, that is a shoddy situation in its own right.

The more-quantifiable consequences will be tested Saturday night against No. 14 Michigan. Crawford was set to start, if not literally at least practically, at nickel back and provide envy-inducing depth at cornerback. With his injury occurring Tuesday, Kelly and his staff have at least had a few days to ponder fixes. The first domino falls at nickel.

Senior safety Nick Coleman will move up to nickel back in those packages.. Depending on the situation, freshman safety Houston Griffith will step in there as well. Considering Griffith was recruited as a cornerback and switched to safety in the spring, it makes logical sense to rely on him in a split-duty role.

“We’ll use two players to take up the slack at that particular position,” Kelly said.

When Coleman is at nickel back instead of safety, Griffith or junior Jalen Elliott will play alongside junior Alohi Gilman. Kelly has been speaking of a safety grouping more than specific players for weeks now.

“We’re going to play multiple safeties,” Kelly said. “I don’t know who is going to start right now. We’re going to play two or three safeties.”

If Notre Dame needs a third cornerback, junior Donte Vaughn will be called upon no matter the side of the field. Crawford had established himself as the field cornerback backup to junior Troy Pride while Vaughn backed up boundary cornerback junior Julian Love. If either Pride or Love needs to find the sideline, Vaughn will now be next man up.

“Donte is a long corner that has a real good ability to get his hands on footballs,” Kelly said. “... The thing that’s held him back a little, to be quite honest with you, we might have over-coached him a little bit.

“Here’s a long corner. This year we backed off on trying to fit him into a particular technique and gave him a little bit more freedom to be more comfortable with what was best for him and utilizing the technique that worked best for him. He’s really blossomed from that perspective.”

With Vaughn as the third cornerback, depth turns to inexperienced options very quickly. As a hypothetical, let’s say Love sprains his ankle late in the third quarter Saturday night. On the next series, Pride’s helmet comes off during a play, requiring him to leave the field for a snap. The Irish would turn to one of two freshmen, D.J. Brown or TaRiq Bracy, depending on the down-and-distance and current scheme.

“D.J. Brown and TaRiq Bracy would be two kids that share real good ability but different skills right now,” Kelly said. “TaRiq is a guy that you could feel very comfortable just straight up playing man-to-man coverage. D.J. is much more technically ahead in terms of playing zone coverages. It would just depend on the situation, how you would play that next corner.”

Fellow freshman cornerback Noah Boykin has been working on scout team, per Kelly, while Joe Wilkins moved to receiver this preseason after arriving as a cornerback recruit.

Lastly, losing a dynamic playmaker like Crawford could put more pressure on the rover position as a whole. The nickel back and the rover work as a time share, rarely on the field at the same time. Though only 5-foot-9 and 181 pounds, Crawford’s raw strength and general football savviness allowed him to hold his own against some players who expected to roll over him. That gave Notre Dame’s defense added flexibility. Neither Coleman nor Griffith is able to offer that same package.

Thus, the rover — be it senior Asmar Bilal or more agile options such as sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or freshman Shayne Simon — will need to handle a greater percentage of those hybrid receiving threats.

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