We all read into every word Julian Love said about the NFL versus coming back for a senior season leading up to the Cotton and let ourselves believe that we might just get the consensus All-American back for another year. Welp, reality sunk in last night when Love announced that he would be heading to the NFL. Now Notre Dame adds finding a boundary corner to its growing list of off-season questions such as what the linebacking trio looks like and what happens at running back.
Right now Notre Dame isn’t short on candidates for the job. What they might be short on, right now anyway, is any sort of definitive answer for how they will replace Love.
After getting picked on Trevor Lawrence and Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, most people are probably writing Donte Vaughn off all together at this point. That would be a mistake. Vaughn has perfect size and athleticism for the boundary position and even when he has been beat, it has been generally more about technique and not blown assignments and or getting burned. In fact, on one of the touchdowns Vaughn got beat on against Clemson, he made a play on the ball to deflect it and just got beat on a ridiculous catch. It was that kind of night for Vaughn.
The Cotton Bowl wasn’t the only time that Vaughn struggled in 2018. He saw time against Pitt with Troy Pride out with an injury and ended up getting benched in favor of true freshman TaRiq Bracy. In that instance, Vaughn was asked to play the field corner when he is much better suited for the boundary. That performance still can’t be overlooked though.
Technique issues are easier to fix than if Vaughn had been consistently getting burned or blowing assignments. That said, there are also a certain level of instincts required as well and Vaughn didn’t show great instincts this past year. At the same time, we have seen Vaughn show them in the past. Remember this interception against Duke three years ago as a true freshman?
Young guys stepping up.
Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn gets his first career interception in the 3rd quarter. pic.twitter.com/1lwkJDzEie
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 24, 2016
Now, that play was a long time ago, but the tools are there for Vaughn. It’s going to be a matter of him really overhauling his technique and regaining his confidence. That is no small task to undertake in a single off-season heading into a senior season. Still, the tools are there and at this point there should still be hope that Vaughn can rebound in 2019.
There hasn’t been a more snakebitten player injury wise at Notre Dame in a long, long time than Shaun Crawford. He arrived on campus in 2015 and was in position to start as a true freshman. Then he tore his ACL in camp. He returned in 2016 and made an instant impact only to tear his Achilles in week two against Nevada. He returned from his second major injury in 2017 and flashed big time play making ability last fall before falling off a bit at the end of the year. Then in August he tore his ACL again and sat out the entire year.
Crawford is scheduled to come back for a 5th year in 2019 and will get a chance to compete, but he is most likely going to be competing at the slot position only. After three major injuries in four years, it is also not very likely that he will be able to fully regain his form this fall. Anything Notre Dame gets out of Crawford in 2019 should be considered a bonus. Notre Dame fans should be rooting like hell for this kid though. He’s had such terrible luck in his career and shown so much promise when he has had the chance to play.
Of the four freshman corners that Notre Dame brought in with the 2018 recruiting class, Bracy was the first off the bench for the outside corner spots. He filled in for Vaughn against Pitt and looked pretty good in the process, but then experienced his own problems against USC and ended up getting replaced. He didn’t play a snap against Clemson in the Cotton Bowl.
Long term, Bracy is more likely an heir apparent to Pride on the field side because of his size (5’10”, 170 lbs) and athleticism. The boundary position is usually more of a bigger, more physical corner. Now, if Notre Dame decides that a Bracy-Pride combination gives them the best chance to win in 2019, they could roll with that combo and switch up their coverages to better suit the talent they have. And honestly, there’s a good chance they won’t find anyone who can replicate what they got from Love so that is a distinct possibility.
Fellow 2018 freshman Noah Boykin is better suited for the typical boundary corner position with his size (6’1″, 178 lbs), but he recorded a redshirt this season even though he did show some promise is camp. Boykin surprised many by picking Notre Dame on Signing Day last February when the Irish already had three corners in the class (Bracy, DJ Brown, and Houston Griffith) so it is very clear that he is not scared of competition. That’s a great trait to have in a corner.
Like Boykin, Brown redshirted this past fall and also projects more as a typical boundary corner. At 190 lbs already he is about the same weight that Love played at this past fall and an inch taller. Brown is definitely the most physical of the corners in this year’s freshman class, but it remains to be seen if he could provide the same type of coverage skills that some of his classmates bring to the table.
KJ Wallace & Isaiah Rutherford
Notre Dame signed two freshmen corners last month in the early signing period but with neither enrolling early, it would be a real challenge for either to seriously compete for a starting job in 2019. Of the two, Wallace is probably closer to playing early – especially at the boundary position. Rutherford though is extremely athletic and you don’t have to look back to far in Notre Dame history to see an athletic freshman arriving on campus in the summer and making an immediate impact at corner (see Keivarae Russell).
Another name to potentially watch here is Houston Griffith. He was the highest rated of all the corners in the class of 2018 for Notre Dame but once he arrived on campus in the spring, he quickly moved to safety. When Shaun Crawford went down with his ACL injury in August, Griffith moved to the nickel position where he was in the mix to start, but he struggled and eventually ended the season on the sidelines.
Griffith’s move to safety was in part to his struggles in coverage in the spring and Notre Dame’s need to revamp a safety position that was its biggest liability in 2017. With Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman stabilizing the position and Notre Dame infusing its backend with talent like Derrik Allen and Kyle Hamilton the last two years, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Griffith gets another look at corner this spring.
How Notre Dame ultimately replaces Love probably won’t be fully clear until the Irish kickoff the season. Without a clear lockdown corner like him on the roster right now, the most likely scenario is the Irish roll with their best corner combination and then change up coverage schemes in 2019. Assuming Julian Okwara returns in 2019, having a strong pass rush again next fall will also go a long way in replacing Love.