Halfway through the second week of training camp, at least two certainties have been emerging so far in Notre Dame’s defensive backfield.
One is that senior cornerback Nick Watkins has, since the spring, become the consistent mainstay in coverage, despite missing all of last season with a fractured arm.
The other is that sophomore Julian Love needs to be on field either as a cornerback or safety. It has been par for the course for the versatile Love, whose eight starts last season while working at corner, nickel and even safety (versus Army West Point) helped him finish eighth on the team in tackles (45), and sixth in solo stops (32).
His tackle total was the third most ever by a Notre Dame freshman defensive back since 1972, when the NCAA permitted freshman eligibility. Only cornerback KeiVarae Russell (58) in 2012 and safety Randy Harrison (57) in 1974, not including the bowl, had more.
Because of his tackling skills, Love has worked opposite Watkins on the field side, where open-field tackling acumen come into play more.
The coaching staff also has been attempting to get Love’s classmate, Donte Vaughn, more action at corner. The idea of playing the 6-1, 207 pound Watkins and the 6-2 ¾, 206-pound Vaughn is intriguing to the staff because of the range in coverage that would be provided as one of the nation’s bigger corner tandems.
However, Vaughn was slowed some in the spring with back spasms, and he was sidelined earlier this week with a neck sprain.
Consequently, Love has remained the top field corner, but has also been cross-training to play safety when Vaughn eventually becomes healthy and proves able enough to use regularly in the lineup. Either way, head coach Brian Kelly envisions Love helping at safety this season when not working at corner.
“He’ll play back there in certain situations, third down maybe,” confirmed Kelly of Love’s role at safety.
“I feel one of my strengths is the ability to absorb a lot and retain a lot of information,” Love said. “Whatever they have me doing I’m going to do it. I feel comfortable. You really have to detail your work when you’re cross-training.”
While helping lead Nazareth Academy to back-to-back Illinois Class 5A state titles — their first in school history — his last two seasons there, Love was a standout on both sides of the ball. On offense as a senior he rushed for 1,070 yards and 18 touchdowns and also snared 29 passes that averaged 23 yards per catch and seven scores. On defense he played more at safety and even linebacker than corner, which facilitated his tackling fundamentals.
“My technique needs to improve, but it’s just relentless effort,” said Love of what makes him so sound at bringing down ball carriers. “When effort is there, plays will fall for you, and that was kind of my freshman year. Some tackles weren’t the prettiest, but it’s just going after the ball. Every play you should feel like it’s your tackle to make.”
Cross-training most of last season at both nickel and corner was pretty amazing in itself for a freshman in former coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme that heavily relied on knowledge retained over several years, but it was a testament to Love’s football acumen.
“I’ve just been trying to learn all the positions on the field because I’ve felt it would benefit me,” Love said. “I was really keen on what the safeties’ role was on our defense. I’m locked in on corner, but when they need to move me to safety to train, I feel comfortable.
“Last preseason my head was spinning a little bit, which is normal for a freshman. Now that I am more confident, I can help others do more in regard to being a leader.”
The safety positions might be the top question mark entering the 2017 campaign. Junior Nick Coleman is back in action there after an ankle injury sidelined him the first week, but he had fallen to third team corner last year before making the position change this spring. Sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott plus freshman Isaiah Robertson are also vying for action, but consistency along the last line of defense remains an issue, which is why Love could provide a safety net, so to speak.
Fortunately, he has sensed a collective progress on defense under new coordinator Mike Elko.
“Spring ball was trying to get the new defense, trying to get your job done. Now [in August] there is a sense of cohesion between the front, the linebackers and the defensive backs,” Love said. “We’re getting the big picture of the defense. Before, it was getting your assignment done. It’s helped us make more plays.
“A young player will lock in on his job, but now I’m getting into the grand scheme of the defense. So I know the safety's’ role, I know the corner’s role. Just knowing both allows me to be successful in cross-training. Once you gain knowledge of the whole defense, it makes your job a lot easier.”
The first week of camp has seen the defense develop an identity which is trying to feature more ball disruption after finishing 104th last year in turnovers forced with 14.
“The ability to give [our offense] the ball back at any moment is something we need to as a Notre Dame defense get back to,” Love said. “Coach Elko is harping on ball disruptions, punching the ball, getting the ball loose. Those little things every play are going to make a difference for us.”
It has been made easier for the secondary because the front line of the defense has, per Kelly, so far in camp caught up with, if not eclipsed, the offense.
“That’s a trademark for any great defense in the history of football — getting after the quarterback,” Love said. “When a quarterback is feeling pressure, he’s getting the ball out a lot sooner and more frantically. That allows us to make plays. Quarterback haven’t been allowed a lot so far in camp to scramble a lot and hold the ball because our front seven is really getting after them, and that helps us tremendously. It’s great to see early in camp because our d-line is really stepping up for us.
“With Coach Elko and the game plan we have, I feel like we can play more loose as players. We all came here for a reason — to be playmakers. We’re out there making plays. I feel like our defense really found its identity in the first days, and now just keep growing when you’re hurting and fatigued.”
Keeping the hunger fueled all around is the lack of attention in the preseason polls after last year’s 4-8 fiasco.
“We know who we are,” Love said. “With last season you can’t expect a lot out of the preseason polls. It’s a strength for us. People are underestimating us going into the season and we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”