Blue and Gold Illustrated

August 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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28 AUGUST 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI I n his exit interview last Decem- ber with head coach Brian Kelly regarding the 2016 season, then- sophomore cornerback Nick Coleman didn't realize he would be making a departure of his own. Coleman became Notre Dame's newest safety after a difficult indoc- trination as a starting cornerback early in the year that resulted in dropping to third-team status. "I wasn't expecting to hear that," Coleman admitted of his conversation with Kelly. "We came off a 4-8 season, we're trying to do anything and look anywhere possible to come up from that. I accepted it with open arms." The approach paid off this spring, where Coleman gradually emerged as one of the team's top surprises on a unit seeking solutions after three years of tumult. He began the spring at free safety, which is designated as the Whip in new defensive coordinator Mike El- ko's scheme. Through the first half of spring drills, Coleman played ahead of Devin Studstill, who started nine games as a freshman last season. Also competing there were junior Nicco Fertitta and freshman early enrollee Isaiah Robertson. When asked if Coleman was the best option at the position, Kelly re- mained relatively non-committal. "I wouldn't put it that way," Kelly said of the 6-0, 187-pound Coleman. "We put somebody there to take first- team reps if we feel he can help us win a championship, and Nick Coleman has convinced us he's there to stay." Before the spring ended, Cole- man made another switch — mov- ing from the Whip to Stud position when it was evident that last year's incumbent at the spot, captain and 225-pound Drue Tranquill, was a bet- ter fit at the hybrid linebacker/safety position known as rover. By the end of the spring, safety re- mained one of the more unproven and inexperienced positions on the team with sophomore Jalen Elliot at the Whip, backed up by Robertson. At Stud, Coleman was listed ahead of Studstill, although Kelly admit- ted the situation would remain fluid entering August camp. "We all know that he possesses the athletic ability" Kelly said of Cole- man. "We wanted to see if he could translate the other skills [needed] at that safety position — tackling and picking up the scheme in terms of how you play off of the hash." Elko has been emphasizing playing fundamentally sound football, not exotic schemes, and the safeties' role especially has changed over the years because of the spread offenses. "Those are the guys who used to be six yards from the tight end in this very boxy type of space — to now have moved to 12 yards by 10 yards in this huge open area," Elko said of safeties. "The safety position has grown in importance over the years as the spread has evolved." Coleman needs to be able to tackle well at safety, but the coaches are confident his pass coverage skills are where they need to be. "He can really track the ball," Kelly said. "He can play the middle of the field, and can really cover some ground and some space. Profiling somebody that has corner skills play- ing the safety position, you can imag- ine that he brings a different skill set to the position." After playing primarily on special teams as a freshman in 2015, Cole- man won a starting spot at corner last season. His 2016 campaign began inauspiciously while struggling to defend Texas speedster John Burt in the opener. He was targeted all night by the Longhorns, and in the third quarter Burt beat Coleman deep for a 72-yard touchdown in the Long- horns' 50-47 double-overtime win over the Irish. The Dayton, Ohio, native had one more start, but the damage was done. According to Blue & Gold Illustrat- ed's unofficial tally, Coleman played 215 defensive snaps in 2016. Of those snaps, 174 came in the first four games of the season under former de- fensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Following VanGorder 's firing after game four, the Irish began rotating in their class of freshman cornerbacks — Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn — to complement third-year starter and senior Cole Luke. Even with injuries to junior Nick Watkins and sophomore Shaun Crawford, Coleman suddenly found himself going from starter to not even on the two deep. "That's [all] part about handling adversity," Coleman said. "You're not going to be able to control your situation completely at certain times in your life. You control what you can control, and that's what I tried to do for the rest of the season. "You can't get down on yourself because the team is also having a very tough year. You use it as motiva- tion and as a learning tool." A star running back at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio, Coleman played several different de- fensive positions there, dabbling at safety. The learning curve as a col- lege corner was rough, but is proving beneficial now. "Any time a corner switches to safety, he's automatically got an ad- vantage in terms of athletic ability," Coleman said. "No knock on our safeties, but it's definitely guarding a different bunch of guys. "You're [covering] tight ends now, big slots, so it's easier to move around and work the entire field and not just your quarter. Knowing all the different run fits that a safety has to be responsible for [is the challenge]." It helps that Coleman's position coach is Elko. "The more comfortable you get, the more confident you get," Coleman said. "The more reps you get, all that comes together. I definitely feel a lot more confident in my play, my deci- sion-making and just overall." ✦ SAFETY DEPOSIT Nick Coleman was one of the top surprises of the spring after changing positions Coleman was effective playing the ball at safety this spring in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko's scheme. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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