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Mar 26, 2018

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Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love, left, runs with the ball after intercepting a pass from Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford, right, during the first half of a game last season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Navy running back John Brown III (20) tries to get past Notre Dame cornerback Shaun Crawford (20) during the first half of a game last season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght speaks with the media on National Signing Day in February at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame cornerback Donte Vaughn jumps early on a run drill during a training camp practice last August at Culver Academy. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Georgia wide receiver Terry Godwin (5) makes a catch over Notre Dame cornerback Nick Watkins (7) during the first half of a game last season in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)

SOUTH BEND – The Notre Dame secondary wasn’t perfect in 2017, but it was markedly improved from the previous season and that was in large part due to the growth of the cornerback position, as well as the improved depth.

“We think we’ve got some talented young players that we want to make sure that we’re giving them an opportunity to contribute,” veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said earlier this month. “I’ll use defense, for example, we’ve got 10 starters back, but we want to see great improvement. We want to see competition at that unit as well.”

Notre Dame opened spring football earlier this month with the first of 15 practices, culminating with the Blue-Gold Game on April 21 (12:30 p.m.) and the continued progress of the cornerbacks – whoever they may be – will be an aspect to watch this spring and even into training camp in August.

News-Sentinel.com sports reporter Tom Davis has been writing on Notre Dame football for nearly two decades and will take an in-depth look at the each position group for next season as it pertains to this spring.

There are a lot of familiar faces (as Kelly noted) returning for the 2018 season, which sometimes isn’t a good thing, but in this case, it definitely is.

The Irish return starting corners Julian Love (13 starts), Troy Pride Jr. (four starts) and Nick Watkins (nine starts), as well as experienced players Shaun Crawford and Donte Vaughn.

In addition, the Irish coaches added five new defensive backs in the latest signing period, each of whom have the ability to play corner, though Houston Griffith may play safety, Tariq Bracy could play running back, and Joe Wilkins Jr. could be moved to wide receiver.

“There will be some players that will cross train in some other positions,” Kelly said.

Notre Dame made a monumental leap in terms of its pass defense last season. The Irish improved from 102nd nationally in 2016 to 49th last fall.

No player was more responsible for that jump than junior Julian Love.

The left corner set an Irish record with 20 pass deflections, which crushed the previous mark of 13 (set in 1969), and he also tied the program record with two interception returns going for scores. He had three picks overall.

Love has the ability to play either corner or safety position, and he might be the best on the roster at either. However, he’ll play corner and be backed up by senior Nick Watkins.

A year ago, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko switched the schematics of the secondary and had the players be responsible for the boundary (narrow side of the field) and field (wide), as opposed to playing left or right sides.

New defensive coordinator Clark Lea is a protégé of Elko’s (he left for Texas AM), so that is expected to continue.

Love will be responsible for the boundary coverage, while Watkins (eight pass break-ups last fall) and Pride Jr. will play the field.

Pride Jr. has great speed and could also be a valuable contributor to special teams.

Pride Jr. may start at right corner and be backed-up by senior Shaun Crawford (five pass break-ups).

Crawford steadily improved in the second half of the season as he got healthier after battling injuries throughout the early portion of his career. He will see a lot of action in covering the opposing slot receivers.

Crawford could also see time at the nickel spot, but Watkins probably will not.

In February, cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght explained to News-Sentinel.com what he was looking for out of a candidate to play nickel.

“The key ingredient to a successful nickel back is reactive athleticism,” Lyght said. “The ability to change direction really fast, have fluid hips, being able to diagnose plays, and being able to read into the box through the tackle, the quarterback, and the running back/wide receiver triangle.

“That is what we are looking at. We are looking for smart guys that can read and diagnose plays that have outstanding reactive athleticism.”

The Irish cornerbacks are a year older, which will mean even better play than in 2017. The depth of the unit is strong and there are a couple of young players (Griffith stands out), who could push the older reserves.

Love should have another outstanding season, while Pride Jr. is set for a breakout season.

The Notre Dame defense should be a very solid unit and the play of the corners will be indicative of that.

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