All alone with one man in front of him, TaRiq Bracy made a play that showed his physical progression since last season.
The play started with Florida State running back La’Damian Webb bouncing an inside run to the edge. Then he clashed with Bracy. The Notre Dame cornerback grabbed Webb with both arms, drove his legs and tossed him out of bounds for a six-yard loss in the second quarter of the 42-26 Irish win last Saturday.
“TaRiq would have struggled with that. He probably would have went for a low tackle on that at the ankles last year,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly about that specific play. “This year he feels a lot more confident in his ability to physically neutralize a bigger opponent in that instance. We feel really good about the progress that he’s made from mostly a physical standpoint.”
Stagnant growth had stalled Bracy’s development in his first two seasons with the program. He joined the Irish in 2018 undersized at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds and looked to add considerable weight. Notre Dame listed Bracy at that same size last season, indicating he struggled to grow physically. His limited size and physicality were among factors that capped his role and upside.
Since the end of last season, Bracy has broken through that figurative wall and added 10 pounds. Covering taller receivers, shedding blocks and making tackles in the open space like with Webb are not as challenging for him anymore.
“It was a problem for me to put on weight early on,” Bracy said. “But I got with the nutrition staff and (director of football performance) coach (Matt) Balis. They really helped me put on the weight that I needed.”
Against the Seminoles, Bracy alternated between field and boundary cornerback. Bracy had never played much boundary corner before this season. Physical, lengthy corners tend to play boundary, because that position requires them to cover larger receivers in limited space.
Until the final minute against FSU, Bracy did not allow a pass to be completed beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage. The Seminoles completed a couple throws for a total of 25 yards in Bracy’s direction during the final minute. But the Irish defensive backs were operating far away from the line of scrimmage to mitigate big plays.
Quarterbacks until that point were 4-of-9 for 29 yards when throwing Bracy’s way. He proved to be a tough matchup, tallying three pass breakups on those nine attempts and 12 tackles in two games played.
No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0) and Bracy will next host Louisville (1-3) and its top wide receiver, Tutu Atwell, on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
“He’s gotten stronger,” said Kelly about Bracy. “One of the things that was priority number one was we felt like he needed to be a little bit more explosive out of his break. He got his weight up to over 180 pounds. He got stronger in his lower body and his ability to break on the football.”
A 28-day hiatus between football games for Bracy hindered some of his progress. Notre Dame held out Bracy and eight other players listed on the season opener two-deep depth chart in game two against South Florida on Sept. 19.
Wide receiver Ben Skowronek (hamstring) and safety Kyle Hamilton (ankle) were out for previously disclosed injuries. The other six were sidelined for unspecified reasons. The Irish do not disclose in their pregame reports whether players are unavailable due to injury, a positive COVID-19 test or a mandatory quarantine because of contact tracing.
With 39 players in isolation or quarantine, Notre Dame postponed its Sept. 26 game at Wake Forest to Dec. 12. An off week on Oct. 3 helped the Irish return against the Seminoles with just two key players unavailable: starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and rotational buck linebacker Jack Kiser.
Still, the long layoff meant certain players could only participate in limited fashion. Notre Dame’s defense allowed a season-high 405 total yards.
“Obviously, when you are away from football for a few days, weeks, you aren’t going to play the same at first,” Bracy said. “But once we got into the game, we started to get a rhythm and were able to win the game. So yeah, obviously (the layoff was difficult). But we don’t really want to make excuses for that.”
Cornerback appeared to be hit the hardest among Notre Dame’s position groups. Starting boundary corner Nick McCloud and backup field corner Clarence Lewis were not cleared until Thursday last week. McCloud’s backup, Cam Hart, was not cleared until Friday.
Sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford moved from safety to starting field corner against the Seminoles. Bracy lined up at boundary corner when Crawford and Lewis were in the game. He slid to field when McCloud saw time.
Field corner should still be thought as Bracy’s natural position. Having that versatility to play both cornerback positions is a new wrinkle to Bracy’s game, though. That development gives the Irish more flexibility at a position group that entered this season with the most questions, besides maybe receiver.
And Bracy has earned himself a featured role for the first time in his three-year career. According to Pro Football Focus, Bracy played all 67 snaps against Duke and 66 of 71 snaps against FSU.
“Definitely having a (high) football I.Q,” said Bracy on what has helped him at corner. “I like to pride myself on being able to guard receivers and become a shutdown corner. I played baseball in high school, so I was able to flip my hips pretty fluidly playing center field. I think that translated to playing field corner.”
In year one, Bracy played behind two future NFL defensive backs. Julian Love (New York Giants) and Troy Pride Jr. (Carolina Panthers) were an elite cornerback tandem for the Irish defense in 2018. Bracy flashed enough makeup speed and ball skills to convince the Irish coaching staff to use him in certain situations.
But Bracy’s impact only went so far. When Love exited in the second quarter of the Clemson game with an injury, Donte Vaughn replaced him. While Vaughn struggled in the 30-3 loss, Bracy watched from the sideline. He was not ready to handle the physical responsibilities of boundary corner.
Last season, Bracy rotated behind Crawford at field corner.
“He’s still not physically developed to the level we want him to be,” said Kelly midway through last season. “Once he gets physically to that level, he can work towards being much more of an elite corner.”
A productive offseason put Bracy in a position where he may now work toward that goal. And he’s not planning to be stagnant.
“I’m looking to put on more weight,” Bracy said. “I’ve made a huge improvement since my freshman year. A lot of diet and just continuing to work out, get that extra meal in, extra snacks.”
Brian Kelly singled out this play as one CB TaRiq Bracy would have struggled with last year.— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) October 14, 2020
Bracy (5-10, 180) had a tough time adding weight to start his career but gained 10 pounds this offseason. Now he's more physical, explosive & can make open-field tackles like these. pic.twitter.com/aISmnkBzZ1