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What Though the Odds: Experience and depth give Irish secondary the tools to overcome challenges, reach new heights

| Friday, September 14, 2018

A legacy, a transfer, a Clemson local and a recruit whose next-best offer finished at No. 8 in the ACC his senior season. You’d never know it looking at the cohesive unit that is the Notre Dame secondary, but they’re an eclectic group that have found their way onto the field in unique ways.

Two games into the season, junior cornerbacks Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr., junior safety Alohi Gilman and senior safety Nick Coleman have distinguished themselves as key pieces to keeping Notre Dame’s postseason goals on track.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish junior cornerback Julian Love plays press coverage during Notre Dame’s 24-16 win over Ball State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Coleman is trying to make the most of his final year, and not just on the field. Coleman was engrossed in the Notre Dame community long before he enrolled in 2015. In addition to his father, who played one season for the Irish in 1983, Coleman was high school teammates with former Irish quarterback Malik Zaire, former Irish tight end Ben Suttman and current Irish senior receiver Chris Finke, who he calls his “best friend” — all of whom were on the team together at one point.

“I’m just trying to do all the typical Notre Dame stuff,” he said.

Coleman also said he’s spent the past couple months exploring spots on campus he hadn’t spent much time at previously.

“The last year is the time you just want to do everything you haven’t done,” he said. “We brought in like 20 new walk-ons, and I’ve tried to develop a relationship with them.”

That same welcoming attitude has been a big part of the smooth transition for Gilman, a transfer from Navy. Having sat out the entirety of his sophomore year, Gilman made his Irish debut in show-stopping fashion — starting against Michigan and leading the secondary with seven tackles.

Gilman said he tries to focus on the little things and how he can contribute to the team.

“Preparation, working on what we can do to prepare better than we did last week,” he said. “ … Focusing on the small things, the small details.”

Gilman said heading into the the matchup against Vanderbilt, anything less than Notre Dame’s best focus isn’t acceptable. He’s expecting senior Commodore quarterback Kyle Shurmer to pose a different challenge than they’ve faced so far. 

“[Ball State senior quarterback Riley Neal] was a little more mobile, able to get out of the pocket and make more plays,” he said. “We haven’t seen too much of that from Vanderbilt’s quarterback but [Shurmer’s] a lot more patient in the pocket and able to make some good throws.”

Although Gilman certainly has the intensity needed to play at the level Notre Dame’s schedule demands, he also said it sometimes comes down to instincts. 

“We prepare enough,” he said. “When I’m out there it’s not as much thinking, I’m just out there.”

Coleman said he understands the need to relax as well as he tries to energize the group in practice as they prepare to face the Commodores. 

“They’re a big, physical team,” he said of the chance to take on an SEC opponent. “We had that in Michigan and a little bit in Ball State. That’ll be fun to go up against some bigger guys. … Sometimes we can get kind of dull. Coach says kind of ‘fake it till we make it’ … I try to be encouraging, be that guy in everyone’s ear, trying to be the kick-starter.”

Although Coleman is the only senior among the group, he has a lot of help shouldering the leadership responsibilities with Love and Pride Jr., both of whom have registered significant minutes since their freshman season.

Pride Jr., also a standout sprinter for the Irish track team, grew up within an hour of Clemson University before shunning the heartland of the ACC for northern Indiana. Throughout his first two years, he played significant minutes, but only managed to start in seven games. However, following the season-ending ACL tear of senior cornerback Shaun Crawford, Pride Jr. is beginning to solidify his status as a starter.

Crawford’s injury, suffered four days before the opening kickoff, shook the defense, especially these four defensive anchors.

“Obviously when that tragic event happened it was just the ‘next man in’ mentality,” Coleman, who adopted the nickelback position from Crawford, said. 

Coleman said he feels his versatility with also playing safety has better equipped him for the new responsibilities. 

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish senior safety Nick Coleman covers a receiver downfield during Notre Dame’s 24-16 win over Ball State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“If you do have a break-down in a game, I feel like personally I can conceptualize what type of defense we’re running and what position I need to be in,” he said.

Coleman came up big last week against Ball State, when the Irish showed up relatively flat after their marquee win, tipping a ball to junior safety Jalen Elliott, who would go on to earn the first two interceptions of his career against the Cardinals. 

Although the Irish managed to escape with the win, there was no mistaking the bad taste left in Notre Dame fans’ mouths. 

Perhaps none felt this sting of disappointment more than Love, a three-year starter from Westchester, Illinois, who said he was most frustrated with the approach the team took heading into the game, but was proud of how the unit responded.

“Our mindset as a whole program … wasn’t in the right frame,” he said. “We overlooked Ball State and what they could be. They were a solid team and they put up a good fight … I thought we handled adversity … [and the] defense stepped up and we played pretty well.”

Coming out of high school, Love had nine other offers, but none of them finished within the top-50 in the S&P+ rankings his junior year. Throughout much of his recruitment, there was some doubt surrounding his size and how he would translate to the college game. 

Love proved the scouts wrong when he became a breakout star and one of the lone bright spots in Notre Dame’s 4-8 season his freshman year, as he finished ninth on the team in tackles.

His calm demeanor has become a steady presence to this team, as players continue to adjust to new positions and responsibilities.

Though Coleman, Love, Gilman and Pride Jr. all have very different personalities and approaches to the game, together they give the unit experience and togetherness — two valuable traits as the Irish push for the Playoff.

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