SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — The loss of cornerback KeiVarae Russell while Notre Dame determines whether five football players were involved in academic fraud has given Cole Luke a chance to show what he can do.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound sophomore played solidly in the opener, with Rice completing only two passes against him, one for a 2-yard gain. Irish coach Brian Kelly said he was pleased with Luke’s play.
“I thought he played with confidence. I really liked just his demeanor. I think that’s really big at that position,” he said.
Kelly said it seemed Luke had appeared ready to settle for a backup role until Russell was suspended.
“Once he became a starter you could see everything elevate in the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he went to meetings,” Kelly said. “There was that sense of urgency in everything that he did. I think since that day, we’ve seen a growth in elevation in everything he has done within practice.”
Luke said he bought into Kelly’s doctrine that no player is indispensable.
“Somebody has to step up, regardless of who it is or what position. So somebody had to fill that role. We can’t play with one corner,” Luke said. “I just felt it was my time to step up my game and take it to the next level.”
After last season, when Bennett Jackson graduated, Luke had been expected to vie for a starting position. That changed when Cody Riggs transferred from Florida for his final year of eligibility and took the spot opposite Russell, whom Kelly had been touting as one of the nation’s best lockdown corners.
Before he was suspended, Russell had talked about looking forward to facing Michigan again after struggling in last year’s game, giving up a pair of touchdowns and being called for pass interference in the end zone.
Luke knows he’s in for a challenge Saturday, especially when he’s assigned to cover Michigan’s 6-5 receiver Devin Funchess. Luke believes first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s more aggressive style will help the 16th-ranked Irish (1-0) against the Wolverines (1-0).
The biggest problem for the Notre Dame secondary last week against Rice was communication. The other pass completed against Luke came when he and safety Elijah Shumate had a mix-up that left a receiver open.
Luke said the team has been working to improve that, including practicing hand signals.
“It’s something we have to take accountability for,” he said. “It’s something we’re working on.”
He played last season primarily when the Irish used five defensive backs, finishing with a season-best six tackles against Air Force. Luke said competing with Russell and Riggs has helped him, adding that he’s trying to emulate Riggs’ aggressiveness.
From Chandler, Arizona, Luke said even out West he was aware of the Michigan-Notre Dame tradition. He said he’s noticed a buzz around campus because it’s the final scheduled game of the storied rivalry, but he insists that hasn’t affected his preparation for Saturday.
“It doesn’t get in my head,” he said. “Once we step in the building, we step in practice, it’s a different stage. So we’re locked in.”
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