The Irish’s oldest player, sixth-year senior Crawford is excelling after moving to safety.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Notre Dame star safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting late in the first half last week at North Carolina, a defensive collapse seemingly loomed.
Instead, the second-ranked Irish clamped down on the high-scoring Tar Heels, shutting out quarterback Sam Howell and his legion of weapons in the second half of a 31-17 victory. The credit was due, in large part, to sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford.
Without his usual running mate on the nation’s No. 10 scoring defense, Crawford let his organizational and communication skills shine through. Snap after snap, he made sure the secondary got lined up properly, most of all Hamilton’s replacements, DJ Brown and Chicago product Houston Griffith.
“We were playing without arguably our bellwether player in the back end,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Our safety play was outstanding.”
When Crawford runs out for his latest Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoon against woeful Syracuse, he will do so having reinvented himself yet again. Recruited out of St. Edward High School in suburban Cleveland as a blazing-fast cornerback, Crawford had to move inside this year after clawing back from multiple knee injuries during his college career.
Listed at just 5-9 and 180 pounds, Crawford surprised even the coaching staff in winning the starting job beside Hamilton during fall camp. He didn’t take the late-stage position change as a slap; he only saw the possibilities.
His first thoughts: “I get to make plays. I get to roam around. I get to fly around, have a nose for the ball. Just things I love to do.”
A football technician who has roomed the last two seasons with Irish quarterback Ian Book, Crawford began watching even more game film of some of his favorite defensive backs — all safeties.
“I was like, ‘Now I can be in a position to be like Tyrann Mathieu, now I can be in a position to be like Budda Baker,’ ’’ Crawford said in a recent video conference with reporters. “I can come downhill, flying like Bob Sanders, or play deep post like Earl Thomas.”
In addition to being players he admires, Crawford noted the aforementioned are all “people who have my stature.”
While North Carolina State transfer Nick McCloud and underclassmen TaRiq Bracy and Clarence Lewis took his former spot at cornerback, Crawford has embraced his new position. After being blessed the last two seasons with one of the nation’s best safety duos in Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea was delighted to see Crawford and Hamilton, the old head and the young buck, mesh so rapidly.
“I’ve always wanted to play safety,” Crawford said. “I played a little bit in high school, and it was fun. I just looked at it as a challenge.”
Conversations with Elliott and Gilman, now in the NFL with the Lions and Chargers, helped steel Crawford for what was ahead. Gilman, for instance, never let his lack of size (5-10, 201 pounds) stop him from being a fierce hitter and reliable backstop.
“I know I’m a smaller safety,” Crawford said. “I have to come down with the right angles, come down with bad intentions. That’s just the focus I have. I don’t see any negatives. I just have to change my game and adapt.”
More adjustments came during the recent bye week that followed some uncharacteristic breakdowns at Boston College. Having sought out feedback from his coaches and teammates, Crawford came away with the realization he had grown too quiet.
“I always thought I was vocal until I got moved to safety and I actually needed to be vocal,” Crawford said. “It’s more than just trying to rally the guys. It’s getting the guys set, getting the guys into the right positions. When I’m being quiet, when I’m not communicating to the other guys, it’s me being selfish.”
The oldest player on the team, one who technically could return for a seventh college season in 2021 under the NCAA’s pandemic-adjusted guidelines, Crawford is anything but selfish.
“Some of it was criticism, but I needed it,” he said. “I’ve been screaming my butt off these last couple of weeks, just trying to make it second nature.”