Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 24, 2020

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

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Page 18 of 55 OCT. 24, 2020 19 BY PATRICK ENGEL I ndeed, Florida State presented a test for Notre Dame's cornerbacks, but in more ways than its 6-foot-4 likely draft pick wide receiver. It's even fair to say defending the Seminoles' Tamorrion Terry and his career average of 19 yards per catch was not even the corners' pri- mary worry of the week. As head coach Brian Kelly revealed after Notre Dame's 42-26 win Oct. 10, the group's concern was in the ability to prepare and field enough players. Per Kelly, starting boundary corner Nick McCloud was unavailable until the Thursday before playing Flor- ida State. So was freshman Clarence Lewis, who started at field corner against South Florida. Sophomore Cam Hart, McCloud's backup, came out of quarantine the day before the game, Kelly said. That's 75 percent of the cornerback rotation unavailable for the bulk of that week's practice and all of the early week heavy tackling days. Just when Notre Dame's most unproven defensive unit heading into the season appeared to have found some clarity, it encountered an opponent it could not shut down: COVID-19 protocols. McCloud did not play a normal workload. Lewis didn't play defense until the final series. Hart didn't play at all. "It was [junior] TaRiq [Bracy] and a bunch of freshmen that really weren't particularly ready," Kelly said after the game. No one can take COVID-19 out of the equation like a stingy corner can erase a receiver, but there was an easy ad- justment to make. Kelly sent a trusted savior to the rescue in sixth-year se- nior Shaun Crawford, a corner his first five years but starting safety in Notre Dame's first two games. He started opposite Bracy and played 68 snaps, second only to sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. Bracy, who was unavailable for the USF game, played 67. Essentially, Notre Dame used two corners with a sprinkling of a third in McCloud, who played 23 snaps. Through that lens, Terry's 146-yard night is less of a cause for long-term concern than it initially seemed. The position temporarily had the stabil- ity of a table with uneven legs. It just had to survive and avoid toppling. Mission accomplished, even though a few leaks sprung along the way. "You get away from football for a few days, weeks, you're not go- ing to play the same at first," Bracy said. "Once we got into the game, we started to get into a rhythm. It does [have an effect], but we don't really want to make excuses for that." The lessons learned? Coaches bet- ter have a plan for anything. And players best be ready to handle a new task on the fly. In this case, Crawford was tasked with moving back to corner from safety, where he had spent the past two months. Junior Houston Griffith, who Crawford beat out in camp, was thrust into the starting lineup in the vacated safety spot and played a sea- son-high 55 snaps. "It tugs on other positions as well," Kelly said. "Moving Crawford out of the safety position puts you in a posi- tion where you're calling on a lot of other guys to play a lot more football, a lot more snaps. We have to be flex- ible and ready to prepare any and all players during this unique season." Notre Dame was both. There were concessions made. There was a sour feeling about the defense's overall performance. All told, a 16-point win still came from what Kelly called its "'B' or 'C' game." There are worse places to be. Depending on who's asked, the re- views on Crawford's day range from adequate to spectacular. Pro Football Focus says the latter, as seen in his 88.9 overall defensive grade and 89.7 mark on 38 coverage snaps. "[He] bailed us out in a very, very difficult time playing a position that he hadn't been repping at all," Kelly said after the game. The eye test ranges somewhere in the middle. Crawford was responsible for Terry's 48-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter when he bit on a double-move. He was beaten again later, but Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis delivered an off-target throw. His long speed was tested, and in some cases, wasn't enough. At the same time, though, Craw- ford handled just about everything thrown in front of him. He broke up two passes in the first half and un- dercut an out route on the goal line for a fourth-quarter interception that effectively finished off Florida State. He made three tackles. In a week where many of his teammates strug- gled with tackling and other layoff- related hurdles, he was reliable. "It's an honor to have the trust from my teammates and coaches to move around mid-week," Crawford said. "Whatever position fits the scheme best that week. For me, it's motiva- tion. I was talking to [defensive coor- dinator Clark] Lea about this today, it's a little frustrating, but the frustra- tion motivates me and drives me." No one wants to move positions in the middle of a season. No one wants to disrupt an ongoing learning process. But this is a season where selflessness is needed even more. Versatility helps, too. Notre Dame, it appears, has both in its secondary. Kelly, Lea and the rest of the staff can rest easy knowing that. "Just moving to different positions, I'm trying to still get familiar with safety, and going back to corner was a little different just because I've been at safety seeing the game from a dif- ferent angle," Crawford said. "Going back to corner was a little frustrating, but I took that as a challenge. It was something I was experienced with, comfortable with. "When I was out there, I told myself I was going to play fast, make some plays, be as aggressive as I can." ✦ TO THE RESCUE Shaun Crawford helped the Irish cornerbacks clear a tricky availability hurdle Crawford, a sixth-year senior safety, stepped up to fill a void at cornerback when Notre Dame had a pressing need against Florida State. He finished the game with three tackles and a goal-line interception that he returned 23 yards. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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