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Crawford shoulders trust of teammates, coaches as sixth-year captain

| Friday, December 18, 2020

Believe it or not, Shaun Crawford has been at Notre Dame longer than Sam Ehlinger at Texas, longer than Hunter Renfrow at Clemson and longer than Perry Ellis at Kansas.

Following two ACL tears, one ruptured Achilles and one dislocated elbow — amounting to nearly three missed seasons in total — the veteran out of Lakewood, Ohio returned for a sixth year with the Irish on an injury waiver. What’s more, after serving primarily as a cornerback in nickel packages through his previous campaigns, Crawford made the move in the offseason to starting strong safety, a move he describes as a dream come true.

“I never thought I’d be starting as a safety,” Crawford said. “It was always in the back of my mind, just a dream that I had, just because some of my favorite players play safety, like Tyrann Mathieu, Ed Reid, Troy Polamalu, Budda Baker. Those are some people that I look up to, that I try to model my game after. And although they’ve been safeties most of their career, I just tried to take the physicality, the instincts, the playmaking skills that they have, and just put it into my game wherever I am on the field.”

If you ask Crawford about the various ways in which he and the team are navigating the season, one word comes up frequently: trust. That trust was made evident to Crawford in being selected a captain by his peers.

“It means the world to me,” he said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity, grateful for this group of guys who voted for me. A lot of … the teammates that I have currently weren’t with me when I got here on campus.”

Crawford was part of Notre Dame’s 2015 recruiting class, along with school record-setters Quentin Nelson, Josh Adams and Justin Yoon. When his freshman season began at Notre Dame, Barack Obama was still in office, “Birdman” was the most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards and Drake and Adele were tearing up the charts with “Hotline Bling” and “Hello,” respectively. Additionally, head coach Brian Kelly had not yet dispatched defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder as part of the mid-2016 firesale.

With Crawford now having been a part of more than half of Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams — six in eleven seasons — he’s had a front-row seat for the evolution of the head coach and his program.

“You can just see the program shift, really, over the years, and just the talent that we’re getting, the players that we’re getting, and also just the coaches that were getting,” Crawford said. “I think the coaches complement the players well and I also think the players complement the coaches well.”

With regard to Kelly specifically, Crawford says it comes back to trust. He stressed how important it is to have that faith permeating the program.

“He’s definitely built relationships with all of his players. He’s interacting with the entire squad more,” Crawford said of Kelly. “When you have that type of bond and you have Coach Kelly who’s at the top, able to make those decisions and put the coaches in the right position, put the players in the right positions, then you naturally just build trust. And when you have trust between the two, you ultimately just go out there and play fast and lay it on the line for one another.”

Those bonds have allowed Crawford to navigate a six-year collegiate career in which he’s witnessed several ups and downs. That includes a 4-8 disaster of a season in 2016, an 11-2 campaign capped by a trip to the Camping World Bowl in 2019 and the program’s sole College Football playoff appearance in 2018.

Now, he’s witnessing the strangest college football season of the modern era with a viral pandemic affecting nearly every aspect of it, which gives even more weight to his title of captain.

“This summer — or this whole year, honestly — has been a tough one for all of us; it’s been a different one,” he said. “So, my leadership had to step up and I answered the call and I was just grateful to be in this leadership role.”

Observer File Photo
Irish graduate student safety Shaun Crawford celebrates during Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State on Sept. 23, 2017 at Spartan Stadium. Crawford made a touchdown-saving play against the Spartans by punching the ball loose an instant before it crossed the plane of the end zone, leading to an Irish recovery for a touchback.

One of the more direct, on-field consequences of the pandemic for Crawford was making another move back to corner. With the program shutting down activities because of a coronavirus outbreak, the cornerback room was hit hard enough that it prompted the coaching staff to temporarily move their journeyman of the secondary back to his original position for Saturday’s game against Florida State.

Again though, Crawford saw that as a sign of the belief the coaching staff has in him.

“First of all, it’s an honor to have the trust from my teammates and from my coaches to be able to move around midweek and [fill] whatever position fits the scheme best that week,” Crawford said. “I’m just trying to still get familiar with safety. And going back to corner was a little different just because I’ve been, as safety, seeing the game from a different angle, playing things a little different. So going back to corner was a little frustrating, but I took that as a challenge.”

Now though — at least according to Notre Dame’s Monday depth chart — Crawford will be moving back to starting alongside sophomore Kyle Hamilton at the safety position. Crawford says that playing alongside a freshman All-American in Hamilton is a great opportunity.

“The communication back there is getting better, has continued to progress throughout the season,” he said. “The more games and the more practices that we could get under our belt together or on the field together is just going to help us throughout the year. So being back there with Kyle and being back there with someone who has a lot of game experience and a lot of playmaking ability just enhances my game and just allows me to play a little bit faster.”

Ultimately, in the midst of a virtually unprecedented year, Crawford is staying focused on helping the team by being the best leader that he can.

“For me to just make an impact on the new guys and still have a voice and still be a leader in the locker room to many of the young guys, and then some of the guys who were also here with me throughout this journey, I’m just grateful and I’m honored.”

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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