The last time that Notre Dame fans saw Donte Vaughn in action was in the Cotton Bowl, when he was trying to replace Julian Love, who had sustained an apparent concussion during the first half. Vaughn took over for Love, and Clemson quickly pounced by connecting on a pair of touchdown passes that effectively ended the hopes of the Irish. Vaughn also was flagged for a costly defensive holding penalty that led to another score.
That cringe-worthy flashback is necessary because with Love now in the NFL, Vaughn is the player set to replace him in the starting lineup. Preseason camp has seen Vaughn shake off those bad memories, which has poised to conclude his Notre Dame career the way it began: with solid play that initially had him in higher standing than Love.
Camp also brought back some bad memories for Irish fans with Vaughn’s resurgence clouded by injuries that have slowed him down resulting in some missed practice time. “Donte Vaughn has been out a little bit,” Brian Kelly said on Wednesday. “He’s gotten the last couple of practices. He’s looked really good. Yesterday he probably pushed himself a little bit. But Donte looked really good.”
In his place, Shaun Crawford, another Notre Dame player looking to bounce back in 2019, has seen some time with the first unit.
A Top Talent Starts Impressively
A native of Memphis, Vaughn was the subject of recruiting efforts by SEC schools hoping to keep him in the region. Not surprisingly, the Tennessee Volunteers made a concerted effort for his services, though Notre Dame was on the trail for him from the outset. The Irish ultimately won the recruiting wars for the 6-foot-3 Vaughn, who committed on his 18th birthday, giving the team a four-star prospect with impressive size, speed and range.
Vaughn’s first collegiate season in 2016 turned out to be a trainwreck from a team perspective, considering Notre Dame’s 4-8 collapse. However, on an individual level, he got some valuable playing time and started four games, finishing with 22 tackles, including 13 solo stops. He also showed a flair for playing in the secondary by knocking down six passes and also picking off a pass in the Duke loss.
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
The Downturn Begins
That should have been the springboard for a stellar Notre Dame career for Vaughn with postseason accolades following. That, in turn, would have meant an early departure for the NFL, like Love, who was in the same 2016 recruiting class. Instead, he saw action in just nine games as a sophomore and was a nonentity during the second half of the 2017 season after sustaining a shoulder injury.
Even during the first seven games, Vaughn’s 2017 contributions were minimal. The high point of his season was a three-tackle performance in the road win at Michigan State, indicative of a special teams performer instead of a star in the making. After the thrilling Citrus Bowl win over LSU, the hope was that he’d bounce back and establish a level of consistency to depend upon.
A Persistent Problem
The problem was that his shoulder had become a nagging concern that again affected his play. He ended the year with just 13 tackles, including multiple stops in only four contests. In addition, there were no big plays on his season resume, with those shoulder woes helping put his Clemson debacle in sharper perspective.
In retrospect, given that the origins of the shoulder trouble began during Vaughn’s sophomore season, the criticism levied at Vaughn during and after the Cotton Bowl looks unwarranted.
Addressing the Major Concern
Less than two weeks after the Cotton Bowl loss, Vaughn decided to deal with the problem once and for all by undergoing surgery for what turned to be a torn labrum. The timing of the surgery helped remove the opportunity for him to immediately erase the bad taste by having a strong spring campaign. Still, given his potential importance for this year, the Irish coaching staff had no sense of urgency to get him back on the field and potentially get him hurt again.
Looking at the Year Ahead
Watching his fellow 2016 recruits like Love bypass him on the depth chart had to be a source of frustration for Vaughn. The 2019 season offers the senior one last opportunity to get back to the promise of his freshman season while making his performance important when it comes to getting notice from NFL teams.
Vaughn was cleared to practice before preseason camp getting underway and had impressed the coaching staff enough that he had earned a starting role opposite Troy Pride Jr. One fly in the ointment is the quadricep injury Vaughn suffered in mid-August. Brian Kelly indicated that he’ll be ready to go in the week leading up to the opener in Louisville on Labor Day night. However, Vaughn’s injury history might give some Irish fans reason for concern.