Notre Dame: Top 5 Cornerback Recruits Of The Last Decade

Bryan Driskell

You could make a case that cornerback recruiting has been the most inconsistent of the Brian Kelly tenure. There have been some strong moments, and the Irish coaches have been able to find several diamonds in the rough (Julian Love, Troy Pride Jr., TaRiq Bracy), but landing the top recruits has mostly been a struggled.

Let’s take a look at the five best cornerback recruits to sign with Notre Dame since Kelly arrived in South Bend. The emphasis in on a combination of rankings from the national services and my own grade for each player. This is about where players were as recruits and isn’t influenced by what they did as players in college.

1. TEE SHEPARD, 2012

Recruited by: Mike Denbrock

Rivals: #76 nationally
ESPN: #90 nationally
Scout: #39 nationally
247: #51 nationally

The work Mike Denbrock put in to land Shepard was wild. I have some really fun stories about Denbrock beating out USC to keep Shepard in the class. The California native was the only consensus Top 100 cornerback recruit to sign with Notre Dame during this period, so putting him in the top spot is an easy choice.

Shepard was a long and physical corner, and he was a smooth and fluid athlete. He was a tremendously talented cornerback, and landing him was a coup for the Irish staff. Things clearly didn’t work out, and a case could be made that Shepard wasn’t a fit for Notre Dame in the first place, but he was talented and they worked hard to land him.

2. SHAUN CRAWFORD, 2015

Recruited by: Kerry Cooks

Rivals: #82
Scout: #116
ESPN: #169
247: #179

The fact Crawford has been as productive as he has at Notre Dame despite three devastating injuries speaks volumes about just how talented he was. Crawford was an explosive high school athlete that was a truly dominant cover player, and when you look at his schedule at St. Edward he was clearly challenged. He was also a really fun and exciting return man. His speed was elite prior to the injuries, but he was also a very smart and heady player.

Crawford was always a playmaker, and his combination of talent, character and focus made him an ideal fit for Notre Dame. Ohio State and Michigan both made a run at him, but Kerry Cooks did an excellent job building a bond with Crawford and ultimately adding him to the class.

3. COLE LUKE, 2013

Recruited by: Kerry Cooks

247: #77
Rivals: #133
Scout: #185
ESPN: Unranked (4-star)

Luke was a smooth and fluid cornerback for Chandler (Ariz.) Hamilton, and landing him was huge for the Irish staff. I always loved his length, top-notch foot quickness and instincts in coverage. You saw that during his sophomore season at Notre Dame (2014) when Luke had one of the most productive pass defense seasons for an Irish cornerback in the last couple decades.

He was a player I would point to as being negatively affected more than others when it comes to playing for a poor defensive coordinator and in a sub-standard strength program. But from a pure recruiting standpoint this was a big-time pickup for the Irish. 247Sports ranked him as a Top 100 recruit and both Rivals and Scout had him in the Top 200.

4. KEIVARAE RUSSELL, 2012

Recruited by: Mike Denbrock

247: #122
Rivals: #124
Scout: #207
ESPN: Unranked (3-star)

This one was a bit challenging, and it had nothing to do with how talented Russell was as a prep player. The struggle was deciding where to place Russell. 

He ended up playing defense at Notre Dame, but the Irish staff initially recruited him to play running back. I decided to put him at cornerback for two reasons. One, Russell never actually lined up at running back after moving to cornerback as a freshman. Two, his versatility was always a reason the Irish staff loved him as a prospect, and moving to defense was never far from their minds.

Russell was never a burner, but I would argue a case could be made that he was the most impressive athlete to sign with Notre Dame from an agility and foot quickness standpoint. The Army All-American could cut on a dime and his change of direction was outstanding. You could see those traits as a running back and a cover player for Everett (Wash.) Mariner.

5. NICK WATKINS, 2014

Recruited by: Kerry Cooks

ESPN: #123
Rivals: #186
Scout: #205
247: Unranked (4-star)

Watkins was another highly regarded player, ranking as a consensus four-star recruit. Three of the four services ranked him as a Top 250 caliber player, and ESPN had the Under Armour All-American just outside their Top 100.

Watkins wasn’t nearly as fast and explosive as other players on this list, but he was a solid athlete that showed a high football IQ on film. His size was outstanding and stood out on film, and he was a great fit for the defense at the time.

NOTES:

*** Troy Pride Jr. was actually a Top 100 recruit according to 247Sports (#95) and he was ranked #176 by Scout. The reason he didn’t crack the list was being ranked as a three-star by ESPN (really bad ranking) and being an unranked four-star recruit according to Rivals.

*** The same is true of current sophomore Isaiah Rutherford, who could make a strong case to be in the Top 10. If you wanted to tell me that looking at the numbers Rutherford should be on the list I wouldn't argue with you, but the reason he isn’t is he didn’t grade out as high on my board as Russell, and I didn’t grade Watkins coming out of high school.

It’s interesting that two of the top five cornerbacks in this breakdown were by a former offensive coordinator. A positive for Notre Dame moving forward should be the recent hire of Mike Mickens plus the return of Cooks, who landed the other three players.

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Comments (6)
No. 1-2
Ndm1633
Ndm1633

do you mind sharing some of those stories about Tee Shepard?

Nathan Erbach
Nathan Erbach

Editor

Wouldn't be surprised if Riley is on this list come time for his final ranking.

1 Reply

Bryan Driskell
Bryan Driskell

Editor

Agree


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