Nov. 19, 2016
By Todd Burlage
When Cole Luke and so many other of his fellow University of Notre Dame graduating (and some graduated) seniors enter the Notre Dame Stadium today for the final time in their football careers, the secret is already out that this season has strayed a bit from script.
So much so that some Irish players understandably may not be overjoyed about fielding queries about 2016 Notre Dame fortunes.
For Cole Luke? “Bring it on,” he says, “Disappointment is part of life.”
Instead of deflecting blame or making excuses, Luke takes questions about this topsy-turvy season head on, admitting to the hurt of not reaching team goals, but certain that brighter days are ahead for a young and improving defense he helps to oversee.
“It hasn’t been our best season. but you can’t shy away from it,” says Luke, the steady Irish cornerback who will be recognized during this Virginia Tech weekend as part of Senior Day festivities.
“Over this season I’ve learned that you’re going to have to deal with whatever situation you’re put in. As a senior, it hurts a little, but there is only one way to respond and that is to move forward and keep doing what I’m asked to do.”
With a degree in hand and his eligibility used up, Luke won’t be around when this Irish defense fully hits its stride and reinvents itself. But his absence next season shouldn’t diminish his importance this season in helping his young teammates better understand the demands it takes to succeed as a student and an athlete at Notre Dame.
“I’m completely comfortable talking about this season because we’ve learned a lot, we’ve improved and we’ve put a foundation in place for the future,” Luke says. “The guys on the defense are growing at a tremendous rate, and it’s just a matter of time before this defense is going to excel on a national stage.”
Luke compares the circumstances here during his senior college season with the struggles he faced and conquered four years ago during his senior season at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona.
Hamilton features one of the best prep football programs in the country, so when the Huskies lost the first two games of the 2012 season, Luke took it upon himself to right the ship and quiet the critics.
“We were being called the downfall of Hamilton football,” he says. “It was hard. We were being talked about as the team that was going to ruin the football program there.”
Hamilton High School is coached by former Notre Dame quarterback/flanker Steve Belles (1986-89), who credits Luke with redirecting team fortunes that season by changing course from his usual quiet “by example” leadership style.
“When he had to get vocal, he did,” Belles said in a story for Blue & Gold Illustrated. “Cole is not one of those fake leaders, which is what I really appreciated about him. He was real and you knew everything that came out of his mouth was real and not phony.
“I remember he called the team up after the coaches had talked and kind of rallied the troops. We ended up winning our next 12 games and winning a state championship with him.”
And in the same style Luke was asked to lead at Hamilton, he has been asked to lead at Notre Dame.
Before this season, Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght issued Luke a challenge, and his versatile veteran responded.
“Cole is kind of a laid-back person,” Lyght says. “He likes to lead from the back. I told him that I needed him leading the charge from the front and he’s done that. I’m really proud of him for that.”
Injuries and attrition before and during this season leave the Irish with one of youngest defensive secondaries in the country. So while first-year Notre Dame defensive backs Troy Pride Jr., Ashton White, Donte Vaughn, Jalen Elliott and Julian Love all evolved into rotation regulars during this season, Luke has also evolved right along into the rock and the voice of the unit.
“Since I have been here, I have always had older guys to look up to and follow in their footsteps,” says Luke, one of those rare players to never miss a game during his entire college career.
“But this year they’ve asked for different things from me, mainly becoming a stronger leader. Becoming more vocal isn’t necessarily my strong suit. I prefer to lead by example, so the younger guys can see what I’m doing and I don’t always have to say it. You hear a lot of things but when there is no action behind it, then it is nothing more than false information.”
Often overshadowed during his Notre Dame career by older players and bigger personalities such as former talkative teammate KeiVarae Russell–a third-round 2016 NFL Draft pick–Luke has played plenty of snaps, often more than 60 per game, yet, he hasn’t garnered a lot of headlines during his steady college career. But again, staying true to form, Luke stresses that hype and accolades never cross his mind on football Saturdays.
“Attention is not what I play for,” Luke says. “I play to have fun, which I feel like as a defense we kind of lost sight of earlier this year. I feel like we’ve turned the corner, that’s what’s most important. I’ve never been worried about the hype or talk coming my way.”
And while Luke’s career and personality are both marked by reliability and humility, a sincere disinterest in self-promotion should never keep him from being recognized as one of the most dependable players ever to move through Notre Dame. Luke entered this campaign as the only Irish player to start all 26 games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. He has also started in every game so far this year, so when his career ends, he’ll be at or near the top of the career list for most games played at Notre Dame.
“Very committed,” Belles says. “He always strives to be the best he can be at whatever he’s doing, whether it’s basketball, or weight lifting, or covering this guy, or playing some offense. It didn’t matter, he was going to do it at a high ability and he was a perfectionist. He didn’t like making mistakes on the field.”
Luke is the nephew of former NFL Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson, which meant Luke spent a good portion of his childhood at the old Texas Stadium, watching his uncle patrol the secondary and become the all-time leading career tackler for the Dallas Cowboys.
So when it came time for Luke to make a college decision, Woodson–who starred in college at Arizona State–was a valuable resource, and a chaperone of sorts. Woodson accompanied his nephew to the 2012 Notre Dame-Oklahoma football game. And even though that matchup was played in Norman, Oklahoma, Luke left there with Notre Dame on his mind.
With offers from warmer-climate schools including Texas, Arizona State, Oklahoma and many others, the less-is-more recruiting approach from former Irish defensive coach Bob Elliott held a huge impact.
“Coach Elliott let me go, he let me figure out what I wanted to do on my own,” says Luke, still appreciative of the space he was given during the recruiting process.
“He wouldn’t constantly hit me up. He wouldn’t constantly bug me with phone calls or texts. He let me be on my own.”
Luke played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2013 and contributed immediately. As a sophomore, he unexpectedly became a starter when Russell was held out for the season.
Asked that year to cover and lock down several future NFL wide receivers, Luke not only survived but he also thrived against the likes of Ty Montgomery at Stanford, Rashad Greene at Florida State, Jaelen Strong at Arizona State, JuJu Smith-Schuster at USC and DeVante Parker at Louisville. Luke finished the 2014 season with 15 passes defended, the most for an Irish defensive back since 1978. He also recorded 11 passes broken up and four interceptions that year.
“He’s not afraid of the moment, there is no question, and I think that helps,” says Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who has consistently called Luke (an information technology management major in the Mendoza College of Business) his smartest defensive player.
Luke’s production slipped some as a junior in 2015, but his reliability did not, again starting all 13 games in the Irish secondary.
And as this season opened, injuries in the secondary–most notably to projected starting nickel back Shawn Crawford–forced Luke to work at both cornerback and nickel back, which was fine with him because it was best for the team.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle piece,” Luke says of playing anywhere and everywhere he’s asked.
“We had to try different guys at different positions. I accept any role I’m given to the fullest. I’ll play wherever they need me to play as long as it benefits the team.”
Luke’s team-first approach is another reason his football career is expected to stretch beyond college, and perhaps why many didn’t fully notice or appreciate his contributions during a steady and productive career that seemed to fly by.
“I don’t think I’m going to understand everything I’ve gone through at Notre Dame until I’m long removed from Notre Dame,” Luke says in retrospect.
“Oftentimes, you won’t understand the benefits that you’ve had in your life until you’re out of that situation. But maybe it will hit me when the clocks hits zero in the fourth quarter.”
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer from South Bend.