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Where Notre Dame was, is and will need to be vs. Clemson: Defensive backs

Florida State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 10: Nick Coleman #24 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns an interception 27 yards against the Florida State Seminoles in the first quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on November 10, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Losing senior nickel back Shaun Crawford in August both underscored Notre Dame’s greatest strength and exposed a to-be-discovered weakness. With Crawford, the secondary had no discernible hole, especially if the safeties had improved upon their strong 2017, a marked jump from a poor 2016.

Without Crawford, the Irish still had an All-American cornerback, an up-comer opposite him and two safeties expected to be ballhawks, if without proof. The secondary remained a strength, just not one as impenetrable as it could have been.

Even without Crawford, who tore his ACL just four days before the opener, the Irish defensive backfield looked well-set entering the season. Highly-touted freshmen Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen could conceivably offer safety depth beyond the questions of junior Devin Studstill, while junior Donte Vaughn had shown enough in the past to be considered a strong option as a third cornerback. If not a plethora of riches, it certainly looked like more than Notre Dame had enjoyed in the secondary in some time.

Without Crawford, either Griffith or senior Nick Coleman (pictured above) could fill in at nickel back. It is hard to remember halfway through December, but there was a moment in August when Coleman looked like the presumptive starter at safety, theoretically alongside junior Alohi Gilman. Then his up-and-down career took another turn, in part due to junior Jalen Elliott stepping up. Crawford’s injury presented Coleman with one last opportunity.

“Nick Coleman will move into that position that he was playing in our light package,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said two days after Crawford’s third season-ending injury in his career. “Houston Griffith will play there as well, so we’ll use two players to take up the slack at that particular position.”

If the safeties played well, a question mark at nickel back could be managed. Entering the season, that “if” still very much needed to be mentioned, given how long it had been since a Notre Dame safety made a play on the ball in the air.

Ball State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08: Jalen Elliott #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates his first half interception with Alohi Gilman #11 against the Ball State Cardinals at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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The safeties played well. Obviously so did Love, earning consensus first-team All-American honors, and junior Troy Pride did, as well, aside from a few moments of absent-minded effort immediately before and after the October off week, at least some of which could be attributed to a bum ankle.

But those safeties, they played excellently. They picked up the slack when Griffith got turned around, Coleman got beat, and freshman TaRiq Bracy just was not ready. Those nickel concerns exist and cannot be denied, but they did not manifest into more than some pinpoint USC yardage because Gilman and Elliott manned the back line, intercepted a combined six passes and were rarely out of position.

Gilman, in particular, became a leader both in action and in voice.

“When you put him on that football field, it’s a different guy. That’s his office,” Kelly said in mid-November. “That’s where he goes to work. When he crosses that line, it’s a different person.

“When I say ‘infectious,’ when he’s on the football field, his personality comes out, his love for the game, his energy, his passion starts to affect others who may not be that same personality on the field.”

Whereas Elliott had not always been an aggressive player in his first two seasons, putting Gilman alongside him changed that. Entering 2018, absolutely nobody would have expected Elliott to lead the Irish in takeaways.

“Jalen in the locker room is high energy, but he wasn’t playing fast, he wasn’t playing with great energy,” Kelly said. “You team him up with [Gilman], … that pair really works well together.

“Alohi brings a lot of energy. Jalen is playing so much faster and so much more free out there.”

Alohi Gilman: 76 tackles with 3 for loss; three pass breakups with two interceptions and two forced fumbles.Jalen Elliott: 63 tackles with 1 for loss and half a sack; six pass breakups with four interceptions and one forced fumble.Julian Love: 61 tackles with 3 for loss; 15 pass breakups with one interception and three fumbles recovered.Troy Pride: 45 tackles with 1.5 for loss; nine pass breakups with two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovered.TaRiq Bracy: 18 tackles with one forced fumble.Nick Coleman: 14 tackles with one interception and four pass breakups.Houston Griffith: 14 tackles with two pass breakups.Nicco Fertitta: 12 tackles.

Peak efficiency. Error-free coverage. Continued aggressive instincts. It is a lot to ask.

The Tigers have a balanced passing attack, one boasting four dangerous receivers. Just consider this distribution:Tee Higgins: 52 receptions for 802 yards and 10 touchdowns; 15.4 yards per catch.Amari Rodgers: 47 receptions for 519 yards and four touchdowns; 11.0 yards per catch.Hunter Renfrow: 43 receptions for 472 yards and one touchdown; 11.0 yards per catch.Justyn Ross: 34 receptions for 699 yards and six touchdowns; 20.6 yards per catch.

Clemson will force the Irish into their nickel package and sometimes their dime. At the least, Coleman will be needed, perhaps Griffith or Bracy, as well. Letting the Tigers slice-and-dice their way through the defense a la USC for most of the first half will not be acceptable; coming back from a two-possession deficit will be a much taller task against the No. 2 defense in the country.

Possibly sans Love, but not much else. Sure, losing Coleman is more than nothing, but a year of development for Griffith should salve that loss. A year of development for Bracy will not get him to Love’s level, and perhaps not to Pride’s.

The good news for the Irish? Gilman and Elliott will be back, and another year of confidence between those two could go a long way.

As it pertains to Crawford, expect him back, albeit likely slowed, at least through September.

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