One of the most prominent question marks on the Notre Dame defense heading into the spring was the cornerback position with Nick McCloud and Shaun Crawford preparing for the NFL Draft. Clarence Lewis emerged as a freshman, but Tariq Bracy regressed in his junior year. According to Brian Kelly over the weekend, though, the Fighting Irish have a pair of young corners ready to step right in – Ramon Henderson and Cam Hart.
“When you line them up, those two look as good as anybody in the country,” Kelly said of the inexperienced duo. Neither played much in 2020 as Hart was still transitioning to corner and battling through some injuries while Henderson was still acclimating to collegiate football as a true freshman. It sounds like that will change in 2021.
“Cam’s making progress,” Kelly said of the converted wide receiver. “A lot of this is a combination of technique and being of a much more aggressive mindset instead of a reactive, defensive mindset. That’s coming together with Cam.”
For a converted wide receiver, that makes sense. Hart was a lightly recruited receiver two years ago for Notre Dame before converting to corner in the middle of his freshman season. Shoulder injuries slowed down his development, but it sounds like the needle is pointing up.
“He’s got the skills, he’s got length, he’s strong physically. He’s one of our strongest, if not our strongest defensive back. Really pleased with his progress,” Kelly later added.
The next step for Hart, and the entire secondary, is to improve on attacking the ball. For as good as the Notre Dame defense was last year, it was not strong in the turnover department. If Notre Dame wants to be in contention for the College Football Playoff again, that will have to change.
“What we’ll continue to build on is he’ll continue to get stronger, he’ll continue to work on technique and now it’s mindset. ‘Go get the ball, it’s yours.’ Because he is going to be in a plus matchup physically with a lot of guys that he goes against,” said Kelly before adding, “ We’re making great progress there.”
Like Hart, sophomore Ramon Henderson is trending in the right direction as well. “Ramon Henderson is coming on,” Kelly said. “Both of these guys have elite traits – long, athletic, the ability to play the ball. Both of them were wide receivers. Both have excellent speed. We’re starting to that growth from Ramon as well.”
Like Hart, Henderson also needs to work on his mindset and playing with more of a ball-hawking mentality. “We’d like to see that continue to progress in similar fashion with Ramon relative to his mindset – ‘be aggressive, go get the football.’ Turn being a defensive back into being an offensive player.”
Coachspeak is always fun to try and interpret this time of year, but if Kelly is being fully transparent here and not just trying to motivate his young players, this is an excellent sign for the Irish secondary. Lewis is assumed to be one-third of the picture at corner, but Notre Dame still needs another starting outside corner and a nickel back. Hart and Henderson both have the frames to be outside corners, so if even one of them emerges as a starter, the Irish will have an answer to one of their most significant question marks on defense.
Where that leaves Bracy, remains to be seen. Bracy started the 2020 season off strong before hitting a rough patch and ultimately spending more time on the sidelines than on the field towards the latter portion of the season. Perhaps Bracy emerges as the nickel back where his speed and quickness make up for his lack of height that’s hindered him on the outside.
Should Hart and Henderson both prove to be as legit as Kelly is making them out to be at the moment, it would be two big wins for the Notre Dame coaching staff’s ability to project and develop. Hart was recruited mainly by mid-majors as a receiver, and Henderson came to Notre Dame as a speedster with a lot of raw talent. Getting key contributions from them in 2021 already would be a big win.
The two emerging are reminiscent of Keivarae Russell and Bennett Jackson nearly a decade ago. Russell was a speedy offensive player in high school but proved to be one of the best corners of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame. Jackson, like Hart, was a lightly recruited wide receiver who started his career on offense before transitioning. Like Russell, he’s one of the best corners to play for the Fighting Irish under Brian Kelly.
If Henderson and Hart are anything close to that duo, Notre Dame could be a lot stronger at cornerback in 2021 than anyone thought they would be when the spring started.