Anyone who has followed me knows the soft spot I have for Crawford as a player and how excited/exasperated I’ve been at the various points of his promising/unfortunate Notre Dame career. Before we get into it, a little back ground on the player, because we haven’t seen much of him.
Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford joined the Notre Dame football team as part of the 2015 recruiting class and one of it’s highest rated prospects. He became a sensation as soon as he stepped onto the practice field impressing teammates and coaches while cementing his spot as the starting nickel for an eventual 10 win team. Then two weeks before the opener, Crawford landed awkwardly defending a pass in practice and tore his ACL. A set back for sure, but ACL’s aren’t what they used to be, and it’s easy to say “well, he can use this as a redshirt season” even though a case can be made his absence was felt more than a little bit on the 2015 team.
Crawford rebounded quick enough to participate in the 2016 spring game–albeit with an annoying green, no-contact jersey–and earned the starting corner spot against Texas where he intercepted a pass, returned a blocked PAT for a two point conversion, and registered six tackles. He was then rocked with misfortune again, tearing his Achilles tendon breaking up a pass in the first quarter against Nevada.
Teammates gathered around him, offered their support, as the reality of the situation set in: he was going to be out for another extended period. Months. It was a heartbreaking scene.
But, now he’s back, and fully cleared to participate in the summer and fall after being limited (again) in the spring. So it’s time to revisit Crawford the player and what he means–and could mean–for the Notre Dame defense.
Added Depth At Corner
If you want to give yourself a little scare heading into the summer here is a look at the cornerbacks currently on the roster:
Five guys! Great for burgers, bad for corner depth.
I like all of the above players and they are all capable of playing in a competitive situation and holding their own, but Pride and Vaughn belong, in my opinion, in a different category than the other three. Sometimes freshmen play when they have earned their time on the field (see: Smith, Jaylon) and other times they are forced into action due to circumstances (see: the 2016 secondary as a whole). One more player in the way of Pride and Vaughn is important, especially when he is better than both of them. Crawford isn’t just depth, he’s starting quality. Notre Dame is extremely lucky Crawford’s healing powers appear to be sublime.
One of the best things about Crawford coming out of high school was the number of different ways he was used and how comfortable he was playing in multiple areas of the field. Just as a comparison, Vaughn, Pride, and Watkins are all outside players. That’s where they played in high school, and that’s all they’ve played in college. Crawford is much more malleable as a player.
He excelled in the slot in high school, both in zone and in man coverage. He also showed an ability to slide into and near the box at times, comfortable working nearer the middle of the field. As previously noted, Crawford was slated as the starting nickel almost immediately upon his arrival.
This matters in a couple of ways. First, we’ve heard the Rover position discussed in terms of Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal, two linebacker types. We’ve seen Tranquill in coverage and, well, it’s been a mixed bag. What happens when offenses are in a pass heavy mode or are a pass heavy team? It’s very easy to see Crawford moving to Rover in a slot coverage role and as a blitzer. The only other corner on the roster who possesses that kind of versatility is Love and the coaches might be hesitant to move him inside when Crawford is an option.
And speaking of Love, you may have noticed, but Notre Dame is unsettled at the safety position. Either at free safety or strong. There is a movement in some circles for Love to be the solution to said problems. In which case, Crawford as the third best corner gives them the ability and comfort to make such a move, if they so chose.
Good At Football
The thing about Crawford is, he’s just good at football.
There was a play against Texas that Crawford made on special teams which sums up what he has that this team and program needs a lot more of. There are 14 minutes left in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame is trailing 31-28, and they have just forced a punt at the Texas 28. Their punter gets off a bomb, driving CJ Sanders all the way back to the Notre Dame 13 yard line, a 59 yard effort.
Crawford is charged with blocking the gunner on the defenses left side, nearest the Notre Dame bench. Crawford sprints with his man, keeping contact with him for the full 60 yard sprint, and shields him off at the point of contact allowing Sanders to split the two gunners (the opposite gunner had beaten Corey Holmes by a good six yards) only to get crashed into by both players. This sprung Sanders on a 40 yard return to the Texas 46, and the proceeding drive resulted in a Notre Dame touchdown giving them a 35-31 lead. None of it happens without the hustle of Crawford, who up to that point had already completed around 70 plays, including special teams, on a hot muggy night in Austin.
That’s the type of play Shane Walton would have made. The type of play A’Jani Sanders would have made (and if you don’t know who that is then educate yourself). It’s a small, winning play by a guy who refused to lose to his man on punt coverage late in the football game. It was a football play. How many times could we have said THAT last season?