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Shaun Crawford’s return sparks ‘party’ on Notre Dame sideline

Notre Dame v Louisville

LOUISVILLE, KY - SEPTEMBER 02: Shaun Crawford #20 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action on defense during a game against the Louisville Cardinals at Cardinal Stadium on September 2, 2019 in Louisville, Kentucky. Notre Dame defeated Louisville 35-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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When Shaun Crawford says he fully-realized he had intercepted a New Mexico pass on Saturday only when he got to Notre Dame’s sideline, it makes sense for a few reasons. The response from the sideline was so joyous, it was clear his impact was every bit as real as he hoped it was. Secondly, it had been that long since Crawford picked off a pass, taking a moment to grasp what had just happened was only natural.

“It was like a party, honestly,” the fifth-year Irish cornerback said after the 66-14 victory. “That’s when it finally hit me, when I got to the sideline and saw everybody coming to me, whether it be offensive guys, coaches, members on the staff, defensive guys.”

Someone with Crawford’s undeniable talents would usually get his hands on a pass a couple times a season — and yes, his natural talent and football IQ is that beyond reproach. Instead, Crawford waited two days short of two years since snagging two interceptions at Boston College in 2017. Since then, his body fatigued to such an extent the latter half of 2017 saw him make no chaotic plays, and it then betrayed him further with a torn ACL days before last year’s opener.

Those two conflicting concepts have become the staples of Crawford’s time at Notre Dame. In the first eight games of his career, he picked off three passes, broke up five more, forced two fumbles, recovered one (the one forced at the goal line and recovered in the end zone at Michigan State in 2017, literally preventing a touchdown), logged 1.5 sacks and returned a blocked PAT for two points to send the 2016 opener at Texas into overtime. He hasn’t so much found himself around the ball as he has signed a long-term lease as the ball’s neighbor. At least, when healthy.

The 2018 torn ACL came on the opposite knee of the one that robbed him of 2015, when he would have been a freshman starter. Between the two, Crawford tore his Achilles in 2016’s second game. Now acknowledging the fatigue at the end of 2017, it can be argued injuries have cost Crawford nearly 3.5 seasons of his career.

It was reasonable to worry the second torn ACL and the overall wear on his psyche may have sapped Crawford of some of his natural talent, shiftiness and instincts. He disproved those concerns at Louisville, and then Saturday’s interception put an exclamation point on it.

“He was in and around the football again quite a bit today, as he usually is,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “He finds the football, and just to think back on the lows that he’s had to go through and to see him today come up with a big play, yeah, it’s kind of nice.”

His contributions went beyond the turnover, adding two tackles and another pass breakup. His return at near- to full-strength gives Notre Dame options in its secondary. Without him, the nickel back role would have been a headache for Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea, and the successful dime package would be missing one of the pieces that essentially allows it to contend with any contingency.

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Crawford never stopped preparing as if this day would come again, and he never stopped deferring praise, either. Even surrounded by media after the home opener, he tried to minimize his role in his own success.

“I have to credit the coaches for that call on third down. … It’s all in preparation, really. Throughout the week, we’ve gone over that play many times, playing cover two, playing the carry technique. Things like that, it just happens throughout the week in practice.

“So when it happened, I turned my head at the perfect time, caught the ball, and wanted to go celebrate with my teammates, wanted to get to the sideline just because without them, I wouldn’t be here. They’ve helped me through all the adversity that I’ve been through, so I just wanted to celebrate with them.”