This position loses one starter but brings back several players with experience, plus hopefully a major impact redshirt freshman. Let's hope the corners become a strength on defense beginning this spring.
Returning Snaps from 2015: Luke (894), Butler (135), Watkins (127), Coleman (44)
No Snaps Last Year: Crawford, White
Lost Snaps: Russell (748)
Early Enrollee: None
Summer Arrival: Pride, Love, Elliott
To Nickel or Not to Nickel
First things first, the Irish defense needs to establish a depth chart at the nickel corner position. We've gone over this before here at One Foot Down. The progression at nickel corner last year went Farley, to Crawford, to Farley moving back to safety, then Crawford tears his knee, we see Russell gets reps, and finally the season starts with no one playing nickel on any sustained basis.
Crawford is going to be 7 months post-injury and is expected to be healthy when spring ball opens up. He's the odds-on favorite to reclaim the nickel spot he had locked down shortly before the season opener in 2015.
Something to watch this spring is grooming a backup to the nickel and trying to field a competent dime back in the secondary. This position may not come from the corners but it'll be a mistake if the Irish go into another season giving up on the nickel position if the starter gets hurt again.
Who Does No. 2 Work For?
The feeling I get from talking with folks is that corner is in a good spot, but silly Austin Powers reference aside, the Irish will be spending this spring looking for the second starter opposite Cole Luke.
This competition has the chance to be one of the more entertaining of the off-season. For now, let's assume that Shaun Crawford stays at nickel and does not become part of the race for the No. 2 corner position. That'll leave 3 players with playing experience the ability to battle it out--I'm not counting Ashton White who probably isn't developed enough to insert his name into this race and may move to safety anyway.
So who do we like among the trio of Butler, Watkins, and Coleman?
Butler peaked back in early-to-mid 2014 with an interception against Purdue and a crucial redirection of Navy's 4th down reverse to seal the victory over the Middies. Since then, Butler was toasted in Los Angeles by USC and spent the last year of football being dismissed as too slow to play corner. He played sparingly in 2015 after some late fall camp false optimism popped up and saw a broken foot cut his season short before the Fiesta Bowl when he had the opportunity to continue proving something once Russell was lost for the season.
Watkins has much more positive energy surrounding him heading into spring but be wary. He never seriously challenged for playing time until multiple injuries forced him into action by default. And while he was used very conservatively against Ohio State and should be commended for not embarrassing himself, it's going to take a lot more than one decent game to vault him into starter territory--particularly when he's a bigger corner not well suited to the defensive scheme.
Does this open the door for Coleman? Given what we heard during the latter portions of fall camp you'd think this could be his spot to lose but then during the season he pretty much stayed on the sidelines. Was it all undeserved hype? Did Coleman hit a wall really early once the season began? Either way we know the staff likes him a lot so he'll be a favorite to start for many people.
Leaving a Crack in Door Open
Let's say it's Coleman who separates himself during the spring and Notre Dame heads into the summer content with a Luke/Coleman duo and Crawford at nickel. If that happens you have to wonder how realistic it'll be for any freshmen to play in 2016.
Can I still say that I'm really, really excited for this crop of new corners? As discussed previously we think Donte Vaughn is more likely to play safety while Elliott stays at corner. I believe this trio has the talent to be starting together in a couple of years with Love playing nickel corner.
In a perfect world there are no injuries and (using our prediction above) Butler and Watkins provide sufficient cover for the starters while all of the freshmen redshirt. The defensive back situation could really, really use this stability and grooming of the next stars and I'll say right now I'm not too excited to see any of these 3 burn their eligibility playing mostly special teams.
It'll all come down to how settled that No. 2 corner position will be after spring and just how ready to play the freshmen are in the face of some experienced veterans above them on the roster.