Replace And Reload: Cornerback
Replacing veteran cornerback Troy Pride Jr. will not be easy, but that is what Notre Dame must do now that Pride has exhausted his eligibility. Notre Dame will be far less experienced next season, but it does return a diverse group of players with some upside.
WHAT WAS LOST
Pride started 32 games in his career, making at least three starts in each of his four seasons. During his career he registered 121 tackles, broke up 18 passes and intercepted four more throws.
He played the field position his first three seasons before moving to the boundary in 2019, where he was tasked with replacing 2018 All-American cornerback Julian Love. Pride certainly did not have the same level of strong all-around performance that Love had the previous season, but in some ways his numbers were better from purely a coverage standpoint.
According to Pro Football Focus, Love allowed allowed 42 receptions for 413 yards on 79 targets, while Pride was targeted just 59 times, allowing 32 receptions for 337 yards. Pride also improved upon his own 2018 production when he gave up 44 receptions and 457 yards on 76 targets.
Love was clearly the better all-around player, but Pride was better in man coverage. That gave Notre Dame the ability to play more man coverage in the boundary, which allowed the defense to be more aggressive with its pressures. Pride gave up a few too many downfield one-on-ones, but he also did a good job limiting pass windows, forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball longer, which allowed the pass rush to be effective.
Notre Dame returns sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford and rising junior TaRiq Bracy. Crawford is a smart, steady player while Bracy has flashed big-time coverage skills. Going into his third season I expect Bracy to make a big leap this season.
Those two should be able to handle one of the cornerback positions and the nickel spot in certain looks. Neither has the size to be a pure boundary player, so Notre Dame will need to do more of a right/left alignment with both of them in the starting lineup, or it will have to find a new second starter.
There is also the idea that going into the season expecting Crawford, who has missed two full seasons and the vast majority of a third, to play 60-plus snaps a game might not be the best idea. So Notre Dame could very well be looking for a second starter opposite the Crawford/Bracy duo, but at the very least it needs a third cornerback to step up and either seize a starting role, or force himself into a key role.
Going with the veterans is certainly an option, but that would leave Notre Dame on the short side at wide receiver. Thinking of watching a 5-8 corner and a 5-10 corner matching up against the Clemson, USC and Stanford wideouts is a bit concerning. One option is to start those two and rotate in the younger, longer players, or to mix and match the starting lineup depending on the scheme and size of the opposite wideouts.
So let’s take a look at the contenders for the “next man in” role at cornerback (players listed alphabetically).
Cam Hart, Sophomore — Hart came to Notre Dame as a wide receiver, but when the Irish first began to recruit the Baltimore, Md. native he had a desire to play defense in college. Despite impressing the Irish coaches at wideout with his speed and athleticism, roster needs and Hart’s inconsistency as a pass catcher necessitated him moving to cornerback.
Hart is listed at 6-2½ and 208 pounds, so he brings outstanding size to the position. The concern when you have players with Hart’s size is does he possess the agility and fluidity to thrive at cornerback. We haven’t seen much of Hart at cornerback, but talking to sources inside the program Hart possesses the necessary traits to play the position at a high level.
The question now is how quickly can Hart master the fundamentals needed to thrive at the position. We will see a lot more Hart at cornerback this spring, and if he can continue to quickly adjust and pick things up he’ll have a chance to work himself into a rotation role next fall. At the very least we should see Hart get a chance to work into a role on special teams.
Hart battled an injury late in the season, so I’m not sure how healthy he is this spring. That isn’t to say he is unhealthy, but rather to state that the last time there were any updates given about the roster he wasn’t fully healthy, and we have not received any updates since then.
Isaiah Rutherford, Sophomore — Rutherford is an intriguing player, and the various recruiting services had a different view on him. All of them ranked him as a four-star recruit, as did I, but Rivals ranked him as the No. 110 player in the country, 247Sports ranked him No. 231 and ESPN did not even have him in its Top 300.
Rutherford is a long athlete, listed at 6-0½ and 188 pounds, but his arm length is what truly stands out. Physically, Rutherford has what you want at the position for a defense that wants its perimeter players to defend the run just as well as they cover. Tackling wasn’t a strength for Rutherford in high school, but as a running back he showed the strength and willingness to mix it up that should translate well to tackling at the next level.
The rising sophomore is a long strider that possesses enough foot quickness and agility to thrive at the position. At times in high school his lack of technique resulted in him not showing the transition ability you want to play tight or man coverage, but when his footwork is correct you can see that Rutherford does in fact have the kind of hips and foot quickness needed to make fluid and clean transitions.
For Rutherford it’s all about getting comfortable within the system and becoming consistent from a technique standpoint. Once that happens he’ll be a player to watch at the cornerback position.
KJ Wallace, Sophomore — Wallace is a different player than his classmates, who are taller and longer. The rising sophomore also lacks top end speed, but he came to Notre Dame with more natural coverage skills and more advanced technique.
The question with Wallace is where does he play. My understanding is he’s played both cornerback spots (field, boundary) and has also lined up in the nickel in his early Notre Dame career. If Notre Dame sticks to its field/boundary concepts from the last three seasons the odds are Wallace is likely to be more of a boundary/nickel player, but his coverage skills and strength could allow him to force himself into the boundary if he’s head and shoulders above the other corners in his class.
Wallace is strong for his size and as a prep player he was a physical player in coverage. His impressive foot quickness and loose hips helped him to maximize his speed, which is not elite by any means. He’s an instinctive corner that played the ball well as a prep player. The key for Wallace is becoming a top technician, as that is the key to him overcoming his lack of ideal size and speed, and then using his high football IQ and strength to thrive in coverage.
Notre Dame will have at least three new cornerbacks next season, and a possible fourth, depending on what happens with incoming freshman Caleb Offord. The freshman class is filled with athletes that are quite raw when it comes to the nuances of cornerback play, but the unit adds a significant influx of length and athleticism to the roster. How quickly that unit matures will determine how good the depth will be in 2020.
Landen Bartleson, Freshman — Bartleson was the highest ranked cornerback in the class on my Big Board, and he was someone the Irish staff made a priority at the very beginning of the recruiting process. Bartleson has good size (5-11½, 181) and top-level athletic skills. He has very good speed, his agility is outstanding and he has a strong lower body. Bartleson can plant and drive on routes extremely well and he’s smooth with his transitions.
Bartleson was a two-way player in high school, so he’s still learning the cornerback position and his technique needs a lot of work. He also needs to become much more physical in the run game. Bartleson certainly has the length and athleticism to step on the field as a true freshman and his ceiling is extremely high, but but how quickly he picks up the defense, learns the nuances of the position and shows himself willing in the run game will determine if he can earn time as a rookie.
Ramon Henderson, Freshman — It has been awhile since Notre Dame landed a player with a bigger gap between his floor and ceiling than Henderson. That means Henderson could end up never being much of a factor, but if he taps into his full potential he could also end up being a truly dominant defensive player.
At 6-3 with long arms, he has truly elite length for the cornerback position, and only running back Chris Tyree boasts better speed. If we are simply looking at his combination of size and speed this is one of the best cornerback pickups of the Brian Kelly era. Henderson has traits you simply cannot teach, and he has a combination of size, speed and quickness that is rare for a cornerback.
During his senior season, Henderson showed better footwork and improved ability to open and run on defense. He always looked more like a track athlete trying to play football, but as a senior he started to look more comfortable playing defense. When his technique is right and he keeps a good base, he can turn and run extremely well, and he can plant and drive on the ball effectively.
At the prep level, Henderson’s speed and length allowed him to overcome any technique mistakes he made. If his technique and feel for the position ever match his physical tools he could be special. Getting on campus for this spring is huge for Henderson, and the extra 15 practices gives him a much-needed head start on developing his technique and feel for the defense.
Clarence Lewis, Freshman — Lewis is the opposite of Bartleson and Henderson. He lacks their speed and explosiveness, but he’s a high football IQ player that knows how to make plays.
Like Bartleson and Henderson, Lewis is a long athlete and was a two-way standout in high school, but Lewis is more natural on defense and plays with better technique. He is an efficient player from a footwork and transition standpoint. His ability to read and quickly react to routes is impressive, and Lewis has the length and ball skills to make throwing in his direction a risky proposition. The windows are just smaller when throwing at Lewis, at least at the prep level.
Lewis lacks the high upside of Bartleson or Henderson, but it would not surprise me at all if he’s the most ready to play as a freshman.
Caleb Offord, Freshman — Offord will likely get a chance to start working at cornerback, but part of the appeal he had for the staff was his ability to play cornerback and safety. Offord has elite length, standing 6-1 and having incredibly long arms.
Offord is incredibly raw from a technique, so getting into school early will be a benefit, but I would be surprised if Offord was able to crack the lineup at cornerback as a freshman.