Notre Dame almost made it through an entire off-season without too much drama other than the Dexter Williams suspension speculation. That streak came to a crashing halt on Thursday as word of Shaun Crawford tearing his ACL spread. Notre Dame’s playmaking nickel corner was lost for the year. The news was a devastating blow to both Crawford and the Irish defense. How the Irish replace their spark plug corner could end up being a group effort.
First off, the new of Crawford’s injury is gut wrenching on an individual level for Shaun Crawford. This is his third major injury in four years – two ACL tears (one in each knee) and a ruptured Achilles – have robbed Crawford of a promising career. In fact, at this point, it is sadly safe to wonder if he’ll ever be able to play again at a high level.
In the immediate aftermath of the new though, Notre Dame is now starting at the prospects of replacing someone they were counting on to provide negative plays in bunches this year at the 11th hour.
On Thursday afternoon Brian Kelly mentioned Nick Coleman and Houston Griffith as possible replacements for Crawford. Coleman ironically was fighting for playing time at nickel in the spring when he fell behind at safety. This summer though Coleman has experienced a renaissance and appeared to have secured a starting position at safety.
Griffith, the early enrollee freshman, entered fall cam hopeful of locking down a starting safety position, but suffered through some minor injuries of his own and fell behind to the point that Coleman overtook him. As a high school cornerback though, Griffith does provide an interesting option for Notre Dame. The big question though, is how quickly can Notre Dame get him up to speed at nickel?
A pair of other freshmen – DJ Brown and Tariq Bracey – were mentioned by Brian Kelly as being in the mix as well. Both were working as nickels in fall camp and if ready physically should be able to handle the position. Brown is more advanced physically while Bracey is more of a pure cover corner. Bracey is also the smallest of the freshman corners and could have trouble against any opponent with bigger slot receivers in addition to any tight ends.
If Griffith isn’t able to step right in at nickel and the other frosh aren’t ready yet, Notre Dame could bring Coleman down, but then the Irish would likely have to rotate at safety between Griffith and incumbent start Jalen Elliot.
With Michigan on tap this weekend, Notre Dame needs a patchwork solution here that gives them the best chance to win this weekend. The schedule lightens up over the next three weeks allowing Clark Lea and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght to assess the situation long term and perhaps start grooming Brown or Bracey for en extended role.
One potential option Kelly didn’t mention if all else fails would be trying Julian Love at nickel and elevating Donte Vaughn on the outside when the Irish go nickel. Love would certainly be able to handle it, and Vaughn was reportedly already the third corner ahead of Crawford on the outside anyway. It wouldn’t be ideal by any means, but it is an option for this weekend nonetheless.
Long term, Griffith at nickel seems to make the most sense. Notre Dame clearly wanted to get him on the field this year before Coleman forced his way into the lineup. Griffith was recruited as a corner by some schools last year anyway before he settled in at safety for Notre Dame in the spring.
Notre Dame has the talent to replace Crawford, but there isn’t any other way to slice this injury than a major blow. We saw what a healthy Shaun Crawford was capable of at the beginning of last year and the thought was that two years fully removed from his last major injury he would be ready to make that kind of impact every week for the Irish. Unfortunately, fate had other plans for Shaun Crawford this year.