Over the last few seasons, there is one thing that has been consistent throughout that time: if Shaun Crawford is available, Notre Dame can field an excellent nickel defense. If he is not, then they cannot. It’s been that way ever since he arrived during the fall of 2015.
He famously beat out 5th year senior and future NFL starter Matthias Farley for the starting nickel spot one week into fall camp of his freshman season, only to be lost to an ACL injury two weeks prior to the season kicking off. Consequently, Notre Dame experimented with Farley and KeiVarae Russell that year before just not using the defense in the latter half of the season.
In 2016, Crawford won one of the starting corner spots and played nickel in week one against Texas, then tore his Achilles during the first series of week 2. The Irish turned to Cole Luke at times, but again, mostly threw out the defense.
Crawford finally returned to full health in 2017, making plays from his nickel position and finally giving the Irish defense a weapon on third downs that opponents had trouble defeating. It was only until the final weeks when Crawford broke down physically did teams finally gain traction. Unfortunately, he was not able to build on the year prior, as yet another ACL injury forced him out of the 2018 season all together, and the Irish were again left with no good answers in their nickel defense.
Reports are that Crawford is ready to compete in what is likely his last go around with the Irish defense in 2019, but after what his body has been through, can he return to the player he was when he arrived in 2015?
Why Is Crawford So Good At Nickel?
In short, because he is a ball player. If you go back and find the highlights from his high school days, he played all over the field, offense and defense, and he played every spot as if that was the spot he was meant to play. He understands the game and he understands to how to play inside. It also helped he played inside as a high schooler and showed an aptitude for it.
It’s not an easy thing to play the slot. People talk about corners being on an island, but at least on the outside you have that sideline to help you. Inside you have nothing but grass on either direction and every route is available. A lot of defensive backs are used to having one foot up at the snap or shading one way based on if they play left or right, but being a nickel takes that away, and some can’t get over that discomfort. Crawford doesn’t not appear to feel that.
He also has the instincts to play inside, as shown by a play from 2017 against Michigan State. He’s inside against trips and the receiver head up on him runs a skinny post crossing his face, while the inside receiver runs a deep out behind him. It’d be easy for Crawford to chase the skinny post right in front of his face for too long, leaving the out open, but Crawford deftly passes off the post to the safeties, and in one motion spins into perfect position to take away the out on the receivers outside shoulder. The result is an incompletion and a punt.
Which Crawford Can We Expect In 2019?
This is the big mystery and reports have varied all over the place. The general consensus heading into and during the spring was Notre Dame was preparing for the reality Crawford wasn’t going to be the same guy, which was mostly due to common sense and his dealing with the multiple injuries, than anything else. He’s gone through a lot, and never mind the toll of what the injuries do to the body, the fact that in the last four years he’s played in 14 games, he’s not getting the reps or growing his game. It’s not like he was a guy on the bench, with those injuries he can’t even practice. Take any athlete and remove them from a sport for a large part of four years and there will be a drop off. Again, common sense.
That said, Brian Kelly did say Crawford needed to be ready to play at the conclusion of spring, and that he ought to prepare as though he was being counted on. There have also been some rumblings from various outlets that since returning to training he has looked explosive and agile, obviously great news for the player and the team.
The good news for Crawford is, as has been the case since he showed up, there is no obvious answer at the nickel other than him. The most common player to rep there in the spring was former QB/running back Avery Davis, and for whatever potential he has, the idea of him lining up there against Georgia isn’t very appetizing. There has been some talk about incoming freshman Kyle Hamilton getting some reps there in fall practice, but with him also learning both safety spots, it’s unlikely the staff wants to put that on his plate.
For all intents and purposes, if Crawford shows up ready to go physically, it’ll be his position to play. It fits with the rest of the defense, and with the issues going on at linebacker, the nickel defense likely puts the best 11 on the field. If Crawford is unable to do it, we’ll be looking at another year of the Irish defense trying to get by without that package in their defense, and leaving themselves vulnerable in the process.