Spring Preview: Cornerback
At present, the biggest question mark about the Notre Dame cornerbacks is who will coach them. It’s been well over a month since Todd Lyght left the program, and the latest information I’ve been able to gather is that Notre Dame is still interviewing potential candidates for the position.
With spring practice set to begin in 21 days that won’t leave much time for Notre Dame’s cornerbacks to bond with their new coach, assuming the hire is made by then. The good news for whoever that coach ends up being, and for the players, is that following the first practice the school goes on spring break, which means there will be a 12-day break between practice No. 1 and practice No. 2.
We do have an early idea who will be on the cornerback depth chart once spring practice begins.
There are two things we know about the Irish cornerbacks. Outside of two veterans this is an extremely inexperienced group, and there is a lot of length in this group.
Right now there’s a lot more we don’t know, and not just about which players will step up this spring. Will Notre Dame keep playing field/boundary, or will it transition to a left/right alignment? Or perhaps, will they do a bit of both, going field/boundary against traditional offenses and playing left/right against up-tempo teams.
Will they use more of the man coverage we saw last season or revert back to more of a zone defense that focuses on keeping throws in front of the defense?
We might get a glimpse of that in the spring, but the spring is also a time for experimentation, and how things go in the spring will factor into what is installed in the fall.
Let’s take a look at what Notre Dame brings back at cornerback.
LAST HURRAH FOR CRAWFORD
Veteran cornerback Shaun Crawford continues to amaze me. When I think of his career I regret that we really only saw two games from him at full speed, as a pair of ACL injuries and a torn Achilles kept him from truly tapping into his full potential. But the fact he’s still a quality player despite being just 5-9½ with those major injuries is truly amazing. I didn’t think Crawford would ever be an impact player again, but he proved he still has gas left in the tank.
Crawford isn’t the man cover player he was early in his career, but the great thing about him is the injuries he suffered didn’t sap him of the instincts and intelligence he’s always possessed. Crawford now uses those traits, and the quality athleticism he still possesses, to make plays on the football.
Crawford makes good reads, he’s a sound tackler and shows good downhill range. I could see him serving a similar role to Julian Love in that he doesn’t play much press man, but he can thrive playing off coverage, which allows him to make quick reads and then drive on the football.
A question that must be asked is how much can the staff put on Crawford’s shoulders from a workload standpoint. Crawford played more than 50 snaps just two times last season and averaged 39.1 snaps per game when healthy.
We saw Crawford split reps with Donte Vaughn and TaRiq Bracy, and he also took some snaps in the slot. If Bracy emerges as a full-time starter (see below), does Crawford then man the other spot, or will Notre Dame try to ease his workload by working in a third cornerback? That’s something that will likely be determined as we go through spring, but an ideal situation is that at least one more cornerback steps up, which allows the staff to not only limit Crawford’s workload, but allows him more time in the slot.
TIME TO SHINE FOR BRACY
The reality is injuries and past recruiting misses forced TaRiq Bracy onto the field earlier than expected. As a freshman he got by on being an outstanding athlete, and last season he still went through the ups and downs of an inexperienced, raw player.
There were games where Bracy showed off impressive cover skills and playmaking ability. If you want evidence go watch the Georgia, Bowling Green, USC and Duke games. There’s a reason Bracy led the Irish defense in break ups last season, and he was especially good in the win against Georgia despite playing against much bigger players.
Then there were games where Bracy struggled with his technique, struggled to handle bigger players and couldn’t make plays on the ball. His poor performance against Virginia tends to overshadow what was otherwise a quality sophomore season from Bracy.
Now it’s time for Bracy to take his game to another level and seize control of a full-time starting role. The odds of a healthy Bracy not starting next season seem slim, but what Notre Dame needs is for Bracy to start because he’s playing outstanding football and not because he happens to be the most experienced player.
I’m curious to see how Notre Dame uses Bracy this spring. He’s extremely quick, he’s fast and he plays the ball well down the field, all traits you want in a man cover defender. The issue is he’s not very strong, or hasn’t been, and he can be out-muscled by bigger defenders.
Notre Dame needs Bracy to become a more consistent player, play with greater confidence and start making more and more plays. It also needs him to continue attacking the weight room.
SOPHOMORES MUST GROW UP QUICKLY
Notre Dame has three rising sophomores that are being thrust into the competition, ready or not. Notre Dame needs at least two young players to step up and force themselves into action this season, whether its from the sophomore or freshmen classes.
KJ Wallace got the most action of the group last season, and talking to sources around the program he is a natural cover player that shows good strength for his size and age. Wallace isn’t a burner, but he’s quick, fluid and has impressive coverage instincts. He must continue adding weight room strength and clean up his technique, but Wallace has a chance to emerge as a key rotation player on the outside or in the slot.
Expect Wallace to become a regular on special teams, and he’s a player whose emergence could solidify the rotation a bit next season.
A player that I was told finished the season on a high note is Isaiah Rutherford, who was more of a standout running back in high school than he was a natural corner. Rutherford is quite long and has impressive long speed. At times he doesn’t show the transition skills desired of a press player, but his length and punch help him overcome that.
Where Rutherford could thrive is as more of an off-cover player (à la Julian Love), where his range and long speed might be better suited. It would also take some of the burden off of a young player that is still learning the ins and outs of the position. But if Rutherford builds on his strong finish to the season, shows greater comfort playing the position and has a strong spring it would give the cornerback rotation a much-needed boost in length and speed.
The wild card at the position is Cam Hart, a converted wide receiver who also had some late season injury issues. Hart was initially recruited by schools as a defensive back, but Notre Dame convinced him to play wide receiver. I was told he took quickly to the cornerback position, and he shows much better transition ability than you see from most tall cornerbacks.
If healthy, Hart will get a lot of reps this spring, and if he can show greater comfort with the required technique, and if he can show consistency, he could challenge for a role next season. But right now that’s all projection, and we need to see how healthy he is and if he can pickup the nuances of the position.
Ideally, Notre Dame needs at least one of the longer cornerbacks to force themselves into the rotation. One of them will likely play out of necessity, but obviously it would be much better if one of them plays because his performance is too good to keep him off the field.
FRESHMEN PROVIDE DEPTH … AND LENGTH
Notre Dame sources I spoke with tell me the staff absolutely loves early enrollee Ramon Henderson. He’s incredibly long, has truly elite speed and as a senior he looked more like a football player and less like a track star trying to learn football.
How will that transition to Notre Dame as a true freshman? That remains to be seen, but if Henderson can make a smooth and quick transition his combination of elite length and elite length could give him a chance to earn early playing time.
Fellow freshman Caleb Offord might start off at cornerback, but I won’t be shocked if he ends up moving to safety sooner rather than later. Offord also has elite length, and he shows good vertical speed, but in the film I’ve seen he’s never looked incredibly comfortable as a cover player. There are some tools to work with for sure, but Offord will need a lot of time.
1. Will the Irish staff continue going field/boundary or mix things up more in 2020?
2. What will Shaun Crawford’s role be in his final season?
3. Is TaRiq Bracy ready to break out and turn his potential/top-level athleticism into consistent production?
4. Will any of the sophomores force their way into the rotation this spring?
5. How quickly can freshman Ramon Henderson get comfortable?