By the end of this season, the Notre Dame defense should have at least a half dozen bona fide candidates under consideration to be recognized as the most improved player.
Through the first two weeks, junior safety Nick Coleman might be deemed the front-runner.
Last year Coleman started two of the first three games at cornerback while taking 158 snaps during that time. However, setbacks and confusion saw him falling to third team by the fourth week, getting put behind three freshmen at his position, and appearing to have been placed on the scrap heap. In the final nine games he took only 67 snaps.
If there was ever an opportunity to seize playing time at corner it was last year with the graduation of KeiVarae Russell, season-ending injuries by the second week to Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford, and only freshmen as his competition.
This year as the starting free safety — a transition he made in the spring under new coordinator Mike Elko — Coleman has become too proficient to take off the field. His 73 snaps against Georgia were the most amongst any Irish defender (one more than linebacker Nyles Morgan), 27 more than any other safety and eight more than any other defensive back.
Consistently described as one of the best athletes on the team, Coleman has now translated it on to the field of play, especially as a tackler, where there was perhaps the most doubt. In the first quarter alone against Georgia, he came from across the field to make a touchdown-saving stop of Nick Chubb on a 30-yard run. The Bulldogs managed only a field goal from that march.
On the next defensive series near midfield, Coleman knifed through on third-and-2 to make a solo stop on former five-star recruit and game-breaker Mecole Hardman for no gain to force a punt.
“When he came down and made that hit on third down, the biggest smile came across my face,” said senior rover and captain Drue Tranquill. “He's had his ups and downs, but just to see him starting to come to fruition and really come into his own and feel that energy was just really exciting.
“When you bring the coverage skills from the corner position and put him back at safety, he's able to do some unique things in coverage for us. So the big question with him was, ‘Is he going to be able to come downhill and tackle in space and be physical in the run game?’ I think he really took that with a chip on his shoulder in the off-season. He worked really hard in the weight room … you've seen that in his ability to come downhill.”
Yet when Coleman was asked if it had been the most fun he’s had on a football field, he acknowledged that while the atmosphere was outstanding — “There were definitely a few more Georgia fans than I wanted there to be,” he noted with a smile — he was left unfulfilled.
“I don’t think it’s fun losing at all,” he said. “My personal grade wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Yeah, I made a couple of plays, but there were a lot of other plays that not everyone saw. I wasn’t in the right position. I’m just trying to elevate this game of mine.
“…The first two games I think I’ve had decent production. We’re just trying to keep it rolling, especially coming off a loss. The first two games we’ve done a pretty good job of listening to our coaching and trying to execute the defense. By no means at all are we a finished product.”
In addition to his own dedication and concentration, two other aspects have aided his significant upgrade. The first was the hiring of Elko to streamline the unit into better fundamental soundness.
“I feel like it allows everyone to play fast and not think as much,” Coleman said. “We get all of our thinking out during the week, and then once we get to the game, I think we prepare extremely well, so that allows us to just play really fast on Saturdays.”
Second was his transition to safety, where he played both positions in the spring and saw his confidence soar.
“It allows me a lot to play in the open field, which is my strength,” he said. “I feel like I can cover guys pretty well and it allows me to make decent plays in the open field. You’ve got to be able to tackle in this defense at the safety position.”
Head coach Brian Kelly used his CAR acronym — Competency, Autonomy and Relatedness — to highlight the process with and progress of Coleman the past year.
“You have to have a positive coaching environment,” Kelly said.” You can't be beaten down during that process. In other words, when you've lost your confidence, you have to be able to be put into an environment where I call it CAR. As a coach I'm responsible for the CAR and the engine in that CAR. We got to find something that he's good at. When he's not having success, let's find one thing.
“What we found was special teams for him. We got him on special teams. He started to have some success on special teams. Then as we built him back from early in the season, we got him involved in some dime play. Then he had some success in the dime play.
“Then he gained some autonomy where he could say, ‘All right, I can do this.’ Then relatedness — now I'm part of the team. That's how we built him back. Then he went and made some plays at the safety position when we moved his position. Now we are where we are today.”
Tranquill said Coleman’s willingness to listen and absorb the coaching, and then take an indefatigable approach to his craft, is reaping benefits.
“His confidence just continues to grow and I'm so excited for the kid because he really embodies what it means to be a Notre Dame football player,” Tranquill said. “He's great on and off the field.”