One of the most intriguing position battles of the pre-season was to be who would play opposite of Kyle Hamilton at safety. The two players vying for the position were junior Houston Griffith and transfer from Ohio State Isaiah Pryor. Both players were highly recruited and ranked in the top 100 of their recruiting class.
While the cancellation of spring put the competition on hold, it was assumed it would pick up when practices resumed. Due to the lack of access from the media, they haven’t gotten to see and report on how the competition has progressed, but a new name emerged soon after fall practice got going: 6th year senior Shaun Crawford.
First, it was reported only that Crawford was working with the safeties at times, which made sense since he had worked their some last fall. An emergency situation, some thought. Then it kept coming up, and Kelly kept mentioning it. Then came last Tuesday in his meet with the media, when he said Crawford was playing a lot of safety and it would force a freshman corner to be ready to contribute.
This development has been viewed by many through the prism of what it means for Griffith and Pryor, but it also makes a ton of sense on its own. After all, is it a bad idea to put two of your best playmakers next to each other on the back end? I say no.
Maximizing Shaun Crawford
A couple things are true of Crawford, and they are in conflict. One, he’s a player that has to see the field, a lot. He’s too much of a playmaker to just be a nickel or rotate at corner. Two, given what his body has been through, taking on the riggers of corner and playing every down is probably too much. He will simply break down half way through the season.
At safety, the coaches can protect him a little bit from the rigors of the game. He doesn’t have to engage with a receiver play after play and there is also less running involved, just in general. Don’t get me wrong, safety is not without collisions, but it’s generally not on a play to play basis.
Also, it allows someone of his skillset as a ball hawk to play to his strengths. He has always had a nose for the ball, even when playing the majority of his career with his back to the quarterback. Now, he’ll get to look into the quarterback for the majority of the play. More time reading the passer for a player like him only enhances his best qualities. Yes, they will be giving up something in run support, but the potential benefit of causing a turnover outweighs that.
The move to safety also mitigates what he’s lost athleticism wise due to the various lower body injuries he’s suffered during his career. Being a step slower at corner for a player his size is pretty significant, less so from the safety position.
Maximizing Kyle Hamilton
This move could be just as beneficial to Hamilton as it is to Crawford.
First, it puts two players in the secondary with experience in this defense in games and a familiarity with the position. Without Crawford, Hamilton was the only returning player with extensive experience in the back at Notre Dame, even though he was only part time last season. Crawford and Hamilton can now share the workload assignments wise.
Second, it allows Clark Lea to get creative with his young superstar because he knows Crawford can handle the back. I highly doubt Lea wanted to peg Hamilton as the deep safety all season. A player with his vast abilities needs to be all over the place to take advantage of his skills and to keep the offense guessing. Crawfords experience and playmaking ability allow them to do that. With Hamilton playing in different spots, Notre Dame would still have a proven playmaker roaming the deep middle; the offense can never be too comfortable in that scenario.
A Winning Tandem
This move puts two of your best and most dynamic players on the field together, always a good idea. It also allows for the nickel to be the true best 5th player. What I mean by that is if it happens to be that the five best defensive backs are Hamilton, Crawford, Bracy, McCloud, and Cam Hart (for example, I don’t know this to be true) then having Crawford at safety means those five can be on the field together, instead of bringing in Crawford at nickel and playing an inferior safety in the place of Hart. (And maybe the 5th best is Griffith or Pryor.)
And to be very clear, a fully expect at least one of Pryor and Griffith to receive a lot of snaps. They wouldn’t play Crawford every series at safety, and against running heavy teams, he might not be the best option anyway.
But, in the spirit of putting the best 11 on the field, and raising the ceiling and speed of the defense overall, lining up Crawford and Hamilton together on the back end makes all the sense in the world.