The run back from a lost drill can be a long one for a cornerback.
It may feel even longer after a deep completion in 1-on-1 coverage in the heat of preseason camp.
In a couple instances during Notre Dame practices at the Culver Academies early this month, Irish cornerback Troy Pride Jr. couldn’t hide his exhaustion. He took a few moments to collect himself, picked himself off the ground and slowly jogged back to the rest of his fellow defensive backs for another round to come soon.
“Culver’s tough,” Pride said. “Culver’s hot. It’s flat. It’s tough. It took me a while to get back a couple times, but I got in shape. I got it together.”
The onslaught of passes didn’t stop coming Pride’s way after Culver. Tasked with covering fellow senior Chase Claypool throughout most of the preseason, Pride had his hands full. He’s plenty familiar with trying to defend the 6-foot-4, 229-pound Claypool. The two were regularly matched up against each other last preseason too.
But in 2019, Pride and Claypool both switched sides of the field. With the NFL departures of cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Miles Boykin, both Pride and Claypool were asked to play on the boundary side of the field.
The transition made plenty of sense for Claypool. The boundary side — which stretches from the spot the football is placed to the nearest sideline — is the domain of bigger receivers. With less room to operate, a boundary receiver typically uses size to his advantage to secure catches against tight coverage.
For Pride, the move may have been a bit more unnatural. Speed has allowed the 6-0, 194-pound Pride to excel as a field cornerback. Pride, who has also run track at Notre Dame, owns the fastest 40-yard dash on the team with a reported time of 4.32 seconds. He’s embraced the challenges of playing to the boundary.
“It’s just about being ready for the quickness of the game,” Pride said. “It’s being ready for the physicality of the game. You’re usually seeing bigger receivers. You’re usually seeing a lot more run reads.”
And plenty of Claypool too — at least in August. The two have made each other better.
“It’s always a physical battle, but you have to step up. You have to play,” Pride said. “If you think physicality is going to stop me from playing, then that’s wrong. I’m going to play physical right back with you and we can battle it out.
“It’s been a battle. Every day it’s a battle. You put your helmet on, you strap it up and you say, ‘Let’s go to war.’”
Then they compare notes.
“The way he plays the ball, the things that he can do are difficult to cover,” Pride said. “That’s making me change up what I do. There are things that I can do that he hasn’t seen before.
“He’ll ask me, ‘What were you doing on that rep?’ I’ll tell him because that’s how it works. You’re working to be better players each and every day.”
In his first three seasons with Notre Dame, Pride logged 19 starts and played in 32 games. The Greer (S.C.) High product recorded 81 tackles, 12 pass breakups, three interceptions, 2.5 tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble.
The experience alone gave defensive backs coach Todd Lyght confidence in Pride’s ability to handle the position switch. Even in Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal last season, Pride performed well. Most of the big plays in Clemson’s passing game came on the other side of the field.
“Knowing how our defense is set up and knowing how college football is, he knows the boundary corner will get the majority of the work,” Lyght said. “He wanted to take that responsibility on his shoulders being a veteran player in our secondary. He thought he was ready for the task and we feel the same.
“Troy has had a really good camp. In terms of reps and play count, he’s had the most plays under his belt and he’s never wavered once. He’s shown a lot of mental and physical toughness, which I love. He’s getting better every day with his technique and I think he’s poised to have a big year.”
Playing to the boundary, Pride has expanded his responsibilities. He’s more connected to the linebacker and safety to his side of the field. He’s even aware of what the nearest defensive end may be doing.
The proximity to the football also allows him to be more involved with the opposing quarterback. He tested that out a bit against teammate Ian Book and tried to bait him into throws.
“It allows me to get in there and see a lot of things,” Pride said. “I can play with Ian a little bit. I do a lot of different techniques, have a lot of different tools in my toolbox. I can move around a little bit.”
The mindset hasn’t changed for Pride. He knows that as long as he’s playing cornerback, he’s going to be put in tough positions. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing to the boundary, to the field or in the slot.
“There’s competition everywhere as long as you can find it,” Pride said. “That’s what corner is. If you’re not looking to compete, shoot, you better not be out here.”
The constant threat of being exposed demands an unflinching attitude from cornerbacks. Lyght, a former Notre Dame and NFL cornerback himself, wants to see that competitive spark from his players.
“To be really successful at cornerback, you have to have the win-at-all-costs mentality,” Lyght said. “I tell my guys all the time they will never win every rep. If you play 100 plays, you’re looking to win 98 of them.
“If you win 98 of them and you blow two plays, you have a chance of not having a good game. Every snap is critical.”
That’s why Pride fought off exhaustion in preseason camp. He scoffed at the idea of asking for a lighter day of practice to recover.
Louisville isn’t going to let Pride take take it easy for a few plays on Monday night. None of the other Irish opponents this season will either.
There’s nowhere to hide. Pride’s not looking for reprieve.
“In my head, I want to always keep moving forward,” Pride said. “Going through those gritty days when your body’s aching and you don’t feel it, those are the best times to get better.”