Cole Luke shines with high football IQ and athleticism
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, November 18, 2016
Oct. 4, 2014, will forever go down in the minds of most Irish fans as the night Everett Golson found Ben Koyak in the near corner of the end zone on fourth-and-11 to defeat then-No. 14 Stanford and keep then-No. 9 Notre Dame undefeated.
A very select few might also remember it as Cole Luke’s coming-out party.
Then a sophomore, the cornerback intercepted Stanford’s Kevin Hogan twice and sacked him once on the way to a career night. The Chandler, Arizona, native added four tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup to his stat line on the night, officially announcing his arrival on the national stage.
“As far as games go, that was a crazy game, too,” Luke said. “If I were to rule one of those games [my favorite], it’d be that one.”
The senior has arguably been Notre Dame’s best cornerback since that season, amassing eight interceptions and 142 tackles in 49 career games. This success is in equal parts due to his athleticism — he was a four-star recruit ranked 133rd nationally, according to Rivals — and his on-field intelligence, a quality that has prompted Irish head coach Brian Kelly to call Luke the smartest player on his defense on more than one occasion.
“That’s definitely Mom. Mom helped me out on that one,” Luke was quick to point out, laughing. ”Obviously Dad, too, but I think that’s just my upbringing. Since I played Pop Warner, I’ve always had such intelligent coaches and they always put it upon me [that] … if you understand what you’re doing, playing fast has nothing to do with speed. It’s about if you understand the game, then you can play faster than anybody on the field.
“That was kind of just ingrained in me, and then, when I got to high school, it just took off from there. All my coaches — it was kind of a requirement. You needed to understand the game if you were going to play well.”
Luke’s coach when he arrived at Hamilton High School also helped steer Luke on a northeasterly trajectory when it came to his collegiate career: After all, Steve Belles was a backup quarterback for Notre Dame when the program won its last national championship in 1988. Belles didn’t push his player too hard toward his alma mater, though, Luke said.
“I still think today, if [Belles] was always on my back about it, I feel like I may not have made this decision,” Luke said. “He kind of just gave me information about [Notre Dame], and he would tell me, ‘Hey, [then-safeties coach Bob] Elliott said give him a call.’ And I’d be like, ‘Alright, cool.’ He would never persuade me to do this or make me do that, which is really good because I could feel it out for myself and figure out what I liked about it. I finally made a visit or two, and that’s when things kind of started rolling. I fell in love with it from there on out.”
While the road to South Bend wasn’t always clear, Luke said one thing about his recruiting process was.
“I wanted to leave [Arizona],” Luke said, still emphatic about the decision more than four years later. “About halfway through my recruiting process, I think I started realizing, ‘Football is not going to be forever, I need a backup.’ And that’s when I started leaning towards Notre Dame a little bit. I didn’t want to stay in-state, so I checked ASU and U of A out of the box already, so it came down to Texas, Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
“I’ve always been a big Texas fan since I was a kid. I have family out in Dallas so I think that’s why I liked Texas so much. I would go to the Red River Rivalry back in the day with my uncle, so I think it started back then.”
Belles gave Luke just enough about the Irish to tempt him, however, and the high schooler decided he had to find out why people speak so highly of Notre Dame.
“[Belles] said what everybody says. I would ask him, ‘What’s so great about it?’ and he’s like, ‘I can’t. You have to go see it for yourself,’” Luke said. “He’d always tell me, ‘I want to explain it to you, but you need to go see it for yourself, and then you’ll understand what people mean.’ And I didn’t know a lot about Notre Dame, but I was like, ‘Ok, well, everyone talks so highly about this place, I’m going to go see what it’s about.’ And that was when I came down here on a visit, and I got a hint of what everybody tried to explain to me back home when I was younger.”
Life hasn’t always gone smoothly for the senior on campus. After a standout sophomore campaign, he struggled at times against other teams’ top receivers at times during his junior year. Luke said he worked hard to reverse that trend this season with the help of Irish defensive analyst Jeff Burris.
“He’s helped me a lot on my technique, just little things,” Luke said. “And somehow he’s always watching me. I don’t know how: This man has 10 eyes in the back of his head, 10 in the front. No matter what, if I have the slightest inch where my hands are down or something, he’s always there to make sure that he can tell me what I need to do to clean it up and what’s going to help.”
Luke said this immediacy has been extremely beneficial.
“It’s perfect because I have [Burris] there for damn near every rep, and I get immediate feedback,” Luke said, snapping his fingers for emphasis. “It’s different when you know you messed up, but you’re like, ‘I don’t know what I did right, let me go see in film.’ I have immediate feedback from him, which is awesome. He’ll be like, ‘Hey, you need to this,’ or ‘On that rep, this was eh.’”
Now, as his career donning the blue and gold draws to a close, Luke said it’s too hard to pin down a specific favorite memory from his time at Notre Dame.
“I’ve had so many — it’s hard. I think my favorite is just we always have a select few games — no, I don’t even think it’d be a game,” Luke said, trying to work through his memory bank. “I think it’s just being with the guys in the locker room, just our locker room culture and brotherhood we have in there is second to none. You always look forward to just being with the guys and just hanging out after practice, chilling before you take a shower, just little things like that.
“And obviously the fan base and the atmosphere of the games all around. I don’t think I have one favorite memory. We’ve had a lot of close games. I love all of them.”