Notre Dame is projected to be special and the play of defender Julian Love is a key reason why

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly speaks with Fighting Irish cornerback Julian Love prior to a practice this spring at the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of
Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght speaks with the media this spring at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex following a practice in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of
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)

For all of its luster, the fact remains that the Notre Dame football program hasn’t been truly special but one time in the last 24 seasons and even that was six years ago. However, the possibility of that ignominious stretch ending may be near and if it does, the play of veteran cornerback Julian Love will be a key reason for such.

There has been just one season (2012) in which the Fighting Irish have finished in the top 10 in both national polls in the past 24 seasons but the Bible of college football, Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, recently was released and has Notre Dame projected as the eighth-best program nationally heading into this season and its ever-improving defense, featuring Love, is why.

“Julian had a great sophomore season,” Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght said this spring. “Obviously, being named second-team All-American was a huge honor. He was really, really consistent and made a lot of big plays.”

In fact, one could argue that Love made more “big plays” (at least of a certain kind) than anyone in program history.

Love built on a tremendous freshman season (he was named as a Freshman All-American by by defending a Notre Dame record 20 passes. That total crushed the previous mark of 13, which had stood since just after a man walked on the moon in 1969.

Despite that level of play, which Lyght did reference as “great,” the coach still wants more from Love.

“For Julian,” Lyght explained, “his key to success, his key to development and getting to the next level, is going to be focus and attention to detail.”

That ability to concentrate on every single play will be critical for Love, particularly because of what the Fighting Irish coaches are asking of the player.

The Notre Dame defensive staff is having its cornerbacks line up with responsibilities based on coverage ability, not simply side of the field. For Love, that means they are having him defend the tighter, more difficult boundary side of the field. He’ll often be left on an island, per se, with no help from the safety position.

“Sometimes he gets out there and he can go into autopilot mode every now and then,” Lyght said. “He’ll make a big play and then come back and go into autopilot mode, where he relaxes a little bit and not push himself.”

New defensive coordinator, Clark Lea, has devised a system to prevent players from relaxing too often, however.

The Irish coaching staff had the play of the Notre Dame defenders charted in each of the spring practices and those that graded out in the top 10 percent, Lyght explained, got rewarded.

“We just continually stay on him about his focus, intentions, and his attention to detail,” Lyght said of Love. “The boundary corner is going to have to win a lot of one-on-one (battles). He was able to do that for us.”

Love increased his number of tackles last season from 45 to 68, passes defended from three to 20, and interceptions from one to three.

He is projected to start at left corner teaming with Shaun Crawford, while a healthier Donte Vaughn and freshmen Noah Boykin and DJ Brown may provide depth.

“For us,” Lyght said of his positional goals for Love and the rest of the corners heading into fall camp, “to be able to tackle on the perimeter with authority, our understanding of route combinations, where our help is and how to play to it, and then always trying to finish in a dominant position in all of the drills even if their guy isn’t getting the ball.

“As young players, they tend to relax a little bit in their development while they play if their guy isn’t getting the ball and I am trying to get them to work through that.”

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