The cornerback position is a popular topic in Notre Dame’s recruiting these days for two reasons.
One, none was signed last year, highly unusual in this era of four- and five-receiver sets where finding people who can cover those looks is such a valued commodity. Signing at least two per year is more a necessity than luxury.
Two, none of the 12 current Fighting Irish commits for 2018 is a corner prospect. (Detroit Cass Tech’s Kalon Gervin originally pledged this winter to the Irish before having a change of heart.)
Notre Dame is not necessarily in dire straits at the position with the presence of three sophomores — Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. — who started as many as eight and as few as three games last year. Rounding out the five scholarship corners on the 2017 roster are senior Nick Watkins and junior Shaun Crawford.
However, Watkins, a standout this spring, has started only one game in his career after sitting out 2016 with a fractured arm. Crawford missed all of 2015 with an ACL tear and in 2016 all but the opener and early part of the first quarter in game 2 before suffering a torn Achilles.
Notre Dame is positioned pretty well to land Indianapolis North Central three-star cornerback D.J. Johnson in this year’s haul, and possibly a couple of Georgia three-star prospects in Telly Plummer and Donte Burton.
For now, though, the Irish are in a 15-year stretch where cornerback has been one of the more difficult positions to recruit — after experiencing a “Golden Age” at the position the prior 15 years.
Beginning with the 1988 national title and through the very temporary “Return To Glory” 10‑3 season in 2002, Notre Dame enjoyed its halcyon days at cornerback.
In those 15 seasons, the Fighting Irish produced nine corners who were drafted within the first five rounds of the NFL Draft — most notably current cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght and Tom Carter in the first round, plus Rod Smith and Bobby Taylor in the second round, the latter as a junior. Lyght and Taylor would go on to become Pro Bowl players.
That stretch doesn’t even include sixth-round pick Shawn Wooden, who would play 10 seasons in the NFL.
In 2002, the corner duo was comprised of consensus first-team All-American Shane Walton and third-team All-American Vontez Duff. It was the first time in school history two Notre Dame corners were both named Associated Press All-Americans.
However, in the 14 seasons since 2003, Notre Dame has had only five cornerbacks selected by the NFL — with KeiVarae Russell the lone one in the first five rounds (third round in 2016).
Even this past spring, senior Cole Luke — who had an exceptional sophomore year in 2014 while playing against many of the nation’s top receivers — did not get selected.
In 2017, Watkins’ one start is actually the fewest among the five scholarship corners, yet he might possess the most promise to elevate Notre Dame’s corner market, now and in the future.