Notre Dame’s 2016 season might have set a record for the most true freshmen who started in the secondary on a Power 5 football team.
Cornerbacks Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr., all had a minimum of three starts, led by Love’s eight, while safety Devin Studstill had nine. A fifth, safety Jalen Elliott, appeared in all 12 games on special teams and played eight on defense.
They took their share of lumps during a 4-8 campaign, but also held their own on many occasions while combining for 131 tackles.
Last year during a much improved 10-3 campaign, Love earned some All-America notice while finishing second nationally in passes broken up (20) and defensed (23), shattering previous Notre Dame standards. Elliott started all 13 games, and Pride came on strong at the close of the season to earn a starting role, highlighted by a crucial interception at the Navy 14-yard line halfway through the fourth quarter of a 24-17 win, while also making a physical impact on the edge with his tackling.
After 12 practices this spring, head coach Brian Kelly noted that despite the presence of Love, nobody in the Fighting Irish defensive backfield has played better than Pride.
“Really pleased with his physicality, his strength, his knowledge,” said Kelly following this Saturday’s practice. “… He knows he’s playing really well.”
The Irish head coach didn’t even have to refer to speed, which has been Pride’s calling card since his enrollment. That’s because as a senior at Greer (S.C.) High, Pride won the South Carolina Class AAA state championships in the 100 meters (10.55), the 200 meters (21.28) and the 400 meters (48.28), and he also ran a leg for the winning 4x100 relay team (42.20).
This spring at the ACC Indoor Track & Field Championships, Pride finished 6th in the 60-meter finals (there were 28 competitors overall in the prelims) with a 6.78 time to earn three points for Notre Dame in that event — despite not working full-time on that craft like his competitors.
For context, the school record is 6.68 by longtime NFL return man Allen Rossum in 1997 as a senior, and 6.60 is considered world class. (There was not a 60-meter dash when Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was running for the Irish, but he still holds the school’s 55-meter record with a 6.07 in 1991, as a junior.)
One of the fastest players in college football, Pride has dispelled any notions that he is a track man trying to play football, or that he gets by on pure speed.
“I don’t feel like it was an issue of track transitioning to football,” he said. “I feel like it was an issue of comfort with myself on the football field. Yeah, I had accolades in track, but managing the two has never been an issue for me. It was just really me coming into my own [in football], telling myself that I can make plays and I can do things on the field that are special.”
Ego or even pride (no pun intended) might have prevented the four-star cornerback from competing in track at Notre Dame because he’s not on the same training schedule while a full-time football player. However, his motivation was to continue engaging against first-rate competition in track to improve himself. It is the mentality he says a cornerback must possess while so often engaged in one-on-one battles.
The competition in the secondary this spring also has brought out the best in him. In addition to Love, fifth-year senior Nick Watkins started most of last year and broke up eight passes (which would have led the team in 2016), senior Shaun Crawford, the top nickel in 2017, is legitimately vying for a starting spot, and the rangy Vaughn, who has recovered from the back problems that plagued him last season, might be returning to form after tying for the team lead in pass breakups (6) as a freshman.
There is similar competition at safety with the enrollment of 2016 Navy starter Alohi Gilman and ascending freshman standout Houston Griffith. Their presence, along with 2017 13-game starter Nick Coleman (working also at nickel) and Elliott, has Studstill battling for a spot on just the two-deep despite his nine starts as a freshman. It has also allowed the staff to shift sophomores Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark Heath to rover and Buck linebacker, respectively.
“We’re fighting for it,” said Pride of playing time in the secondary. “Every play, every day it’s like if you come slacking, you might be a three. That’s just how it rolls.”
In his two seasons at Notre Dame. Pride is now taking instruction from his fourth different defensive coordinator, although the transition from Mike Elko to Clark Lea this winter kept some continuity and nomenclature. Because of that, Pride envisions that the veteran unit can be more consistent and make more plays — primarily because the experience factor now gives them more confidence and a broader knowledge base to play more aggressively, or in press coverage.
“We have a whole different motivation, a whole different set-up of principles that we’re going to abide by,” said Pride on the main difference between Elko and Lea. “…We’re hungry, we’re greedy.”
The overall team improvement last year also facilitated Pride’s individual growth.
“That love for the game has really just surged back,” Pride said. “My freshman year it was a little iffy, I was up and down, not making a play, I was thinking a lot. Then everything just started to slow down and I was like, ‘Shoot this is still just football that I’ve played since I was seven years old.’ Once that happened, once that came to me … Let’s just go ball. Once I got over that hill, [it was] downhill.”
While on the upswing at the same time.