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Irish secondary recruits look to make quick impact

| Thursday, February 5, 2015

Entering the offseason, Notre Dame’s secondary became an area of primary importance.

There of course were needs to address with a unit that surrendered 233 passing yards per game and 23 total touchdowns through the air last season, six of them coming in the team’s final regular-season game.

But there were also plenty of needs to address with the unit’s depth, given the losses of cornerback Cody Riggs and safety Austin Collinsworth to graduation and the recent departure of safety Eilar Hardy. With these losses, plus injuries to junior safety Nicky Baratti and freshman safety Drue Tranquill, the Irish are effectively down to two healthy scholarship safeties — junior Elijah Shumate and sophomore Max Redfield.

Notre Dame took a stab at filling these needs Wednesday the Irish announced the signing of five defensive backs — Nick Coleman, Shaun Crawford, Nicco Fertitta, Ashton White and Mykelti Williams.

With only two of those players — Fertitta and Williams — projected to play safety, the Irish didn’t quite end up with the depth they expected at the position, according to Andrew Ivins, a recruiting analyst for Blue & Gold Illustrated and Rivals.com.

“Given the depth, it was obviously a huge hole in the class,” Ivins said. “They really needed to address some concerns.”

Despite the limited numbers, the Irish picked up two players who should be able to contribute within their first two years, Ivins said.

“Thankfully, I think Mykelti Williams can play right away,” he said. “I think Nico Fertitta is a guy who’s probably going to need a redshirt year or play some special teams. He’s a bit undersized.”

In his National Signing Day press conference, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the team is exploring the possibility of having some current players switch into the safety slot, though he declined to mention specific names.

“I mean, we are going to look at the potential of moving some guys there, yes, that’s definitely in the conversation,” he said.

There’s a few more contributors returning at the cornerback position, but the Irish will have to replace a starter in Riggs. Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke, who started all 13 games last season, figures to be a fixture at one cornerback slot, while senior Matthias Farley, sophomore Devin Butler and freshman Nick Watkins are all possibilities to play opposite him.

Ivins praised the versatility of Notre Dame’s new cornerbacks, noting their potential to play different roles in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

“I think the big word we’re going to hear is ‘cross-train,’” Ivins said. “I think they’re going to cross-train a lot of these guys.

“Ashton White, he might be a guy who could be in the nickel. … Shaun Crawford, who’s an exceptional standout cover corner, he played some safety in high school. He’s extremely undersized to be a safety at the collegiate level, but he could be an emergency option. … Nick Coleman, too, he could potentially be cross-trained in there.”

Crawford, an Under Armour All-American selection from Lakewood, Ohio, echoed Ivins’s thoughts on cross-training, as he recalled recruiting conversations with VanGorder.

“Coach VanGorder talked to me a lot about the nickel position, that it’s actually wide open, so I’ll definitely come in wanting to take that role over and play a little corner,” Crawford said.

Crawford and the other secondary recruits will have the additional challenge of adjusting to a new position coach. According to si.com, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks has accepted the same position at Oklahoma. Cooks updated his Twitter profile biography Wednesday night to say, “Secondary Coach at the University of Oklahoma.”

“Coach Cooks had been hitting the Louisiana, Texas markets hard for the first time in a while for Notre Dame, so that could be a bit of a regression,” Ivins said.

Still, Crawford said last season’s struggles, worries about depth and adjustments to a potential replacement are things that don’t worry him and his fellow incoming defensive backs, who he speaks to via group chat “literally every day, all day sometimes.”

“I think we can be the spark,” Crawford said. “We’re a group of energetic guys. Just watching film, you can see we all play with some emotion, so I just think we’ll wear it.

“If we’re put in there to play, I think we’ll make an impact.”

About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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