Nov. 20, 2014
When sophomore cornerback Cole Luke stepped onto the football field against Rice in the 2014 University of Notre Dame football season opener, he wore a target as a first-time starter, thrown into the fire by personnel losses to the Irish secondary.
Enemy quarterbacks picked on Luke-- and then Luke started picking on them.
Turning in solid play in his first four games, Luke then turned his learning curve into a fast track. The 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound native of Chandler, Ariz., has intercepted four passes in his last six games.
Luke hopes to keep his hot hand going when the Irish take on Louisville Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:40 EST.
Through 10 games this season, Luke leads the Irish with eight passes broken up and is tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
"If there's one player we would single out on defense who has progressed, while maybe some others have leveled off or haven't progressed the way we have wanted, it's Cole Luke," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. "He has really outperformed in our eyes in a number of ways. If there's a silver lining relative to personnel, playing Cole Luke and getting him this year really bodes well for us."
Luke enjoyed a statement game in Notre Dame's thrilling 17-14 victory against Stanford on Oct. 4. He picked off two Stanford passes as the Irish defense stood tall in knocking out the No. 13-ranked Cardinal.
"People thought it was hectic for me, but it really wasn't hectic at all," Luke said of being told he would be starting shortly before the season opener. "Coach Kelly was like, `You're going to be playing a lot, soon.' I was like, `All right. Cool.'
"I just had to do what I had to do. I had to step up. Somebody had to step up and fill the role. I just took it to heart and kept working on my craft, and things went how they should."
Luke said preparation has played a key part in his development.
"I really think it's all just a matter of film study, applying it to the game and knowing what's coming your way during the game," Luke said of his stretch of four interceptions in the last six games. "Obviously, it's repping it at practice, guys giving you a good look, working repetitively at stuff, and just knowing how to make a play on the ball. I feel that's the most important part.
"It's a good feeling, getting interceptions. It's not as common in college as it is in high school. When you do get your few picks here and there, it's a really good feeling, letting the offense come back on the field, knowing your team will have the potential to score. It gives a team momentum."
One of the most important aspects of handling the hot spot on defense for Luke has been forging a steely mental toughness.
"I feel like I gain most of my mental toughness from my teammates," Luke said. "We have great leaders. I also gain mental toughness from my coaches. They stress mental toughness a lot. Corners are under a magnifying glass more than any other position on the field. It may not be as hard to learn versus other positions, but if you mess up, a lot's at stake. It's easy to get exposed.
"You have to have a short memory. You're going to get beat every now and then. The guy you're going up against is going to make some plays and so are you. If you let that bad play or whatever happened the play before stick around, it's going to affect you later in the game. You have to just keep moving on."
This season, Luke has been that player who is moving on and moving up.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent