SOUTH BEND — Troy Pride Jr. has largely put his track and field passion on the back burner this spring, but the Notre Dame senior cornerback still knows what fast looks like.
Michael Young was the first name out of his mouth when asked to assess the emerging speed in the Irish wide receiving corps, a collective movement strong enough that the Irish have stopped pursuing Virginia Tech grad transfer receiver Eric Kumah, per a source.
“Michael Young has some wheels,” said Pride, the top sprinter on the ND track team in the 2018 indoor and outdoor season. “And (Chris) Finke, I don’t know what he did, but he’s looking faster.”
Sophomores Joe Wilkins Jr., Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy — the latter of whom also self-sacrificed track this spring — came up too as Pride continued to mull the question of who’s fastest among the receivers.
“I would say Keys right now. But Braden, shoot. Flat-line speed (is elite). Come on, now. But Keys is really quick and he can get to his (top) speed faster than Braden can.”
Interestingly, though, the toughest receiver to cover per Pride — if you take bruising 6-foot-4, leading returning receiver Chase Claypool out of the mix — is not in the “top speed” conversation.
“I like Kevin Austin. He’s a great athlete,” said Pride, Notre Dame’s new alpha in the defensive backfield and perhaps the Irish defensive player enjoying the best spring through the first seven sessions of the allotted 15.
“When Austin first came here, I was like, ‘Did you transfer here?’ He was big (6-2, 210 pounds), athletic.
“He’s a tough cover. You’ve got to get physical with him, but he can do that with you. He can run with you. We’ve got some very good players on the offensive side of the ball who make us better each and every day.”
And that’s Pride’s only focus, getting better and getting the people around him better — that is beyond an occasional impression of his head coach Brian Kelly.
That’s why the only track meet Pride ran during the indoor season was the Alex Wilson Invitational, Feb. 16 at Notre Dame, in which he finished second in the 60-meter dash (6.81 seconds).
The former South Carolina state champ in three events used to believe track was essential to him being a better football player. This spring is telling him differently.
Maybe it’s the travel associated with it, going to meets out of state, or just the grind of adding another demand to an already full schedule.
“I feel a lot more put together,” he said. “But I also feel faster, so I don’t know. I just feel good.”
And Pride feeling good and playing next-level good was step one for the Irish staff in a big offseason, big-picture goal that was exposed by Clemson in the College Football Playoff.
That is getting beyond the loss of three-and-out junior All-American Julian Love to an NFL Draft early entry and building quality depth at the position group as well.
Step 2 was identifying and grooming a player to fill Love’s vacated boundary corner spot. And sophomore Houston Griffith, shifted from a safety/nickel role last season, has continually flashed as one of the top rising players at any positon this spring.
“Houston was an All-American in high school, so he already has the tools,” Pride said. “He’s very good with his hands. He’s a very fluid corner. He does so many things well. If you go look at the weight room board, he’s at the top. He’s a natural athlete, a natural competitor.”
And a pretty good talker. In fact, Pride, who wears uniform No. 5, and Griffith (No. 3) already have their own mantra:
“If you want to stay alive, stay away from 3 and 5,” Pride revealed. “That’s just what we do. Me and my guy Houston, we are just trying to build. That’s really what we’re doing.”
Building behind those two is a work-in-progress, but with lots of encouraging signs. Pride offered that his backup, sophomore TaRiq Bracy, is playing better than he is. And he believes converted QB/wide receiver/running back Avery Davis has shown the necessary athletic ability to play the boundary corner behind Griffith.
At Tuesday’s practice, fully open to the media, the Irish practiced the nickel for the first time, and Davis got the first look there.
“We’ve just got to continue to hone those little things,” Pride said.
Meanwhile, sophomore Noah Boykin, another corner, is starting to play more confidently in practice.
“Love the fact that we’re gaining great experience,” Kelly said Saturday of the position group. “I like where we’re going with the depth there.”
Presumably, Kelly will be able to add four more bodies to the mix in August training camp — convalescing grad senior Shaun Crawford and senior Donte Vaughn, and June freshman arrivals Isaiah Rutherford and K.J. Wallace.
“I want to see us take it to another level, where we’re dominant,” Pride said.
And he pointed out he himself has plenty of room for improvement, noting that his press coverage needs work and that he hasn’t garnered a single interception yet in practice this spring.
“I thought I was a worker before, but (defensive coordinator Clark Lea) has really got me being a workhorse,” he said. “He’s got me being a leader, doing so many little things that it’s ramped up.
“I just like to cling to what I have now and cherish every moment I have out there with my guys, cherish every rep, cherish the coaches, and being focused on (the next practice).”
• Backup offensive guards Josh Lugg, John Dirksen and Dillan Gibbons, and backup running back Jahmir Smith, all missed practice Tuesday because of academic obligations.
• Sophomore defensive end Ovie Oghoufo continues to surge in practices, and defensive line coach Mike Elston rewarded(?) one of those moments Tuesday by calling him Ovie Wan Kenobi.
• Junior Aaron Banks, held out of contact in an earlier practice and shifted to left tackle when starter Liam Eichenberg missed a practice with class obligations, was back at his familiar left guard spot Tuesday.
• Four players took turns catching punts from a machine during a special teams drill. In addition to incumbent punt returner Chris Finke, Lawrence Keys, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Michael Young also took reps there.