New Notre Dame commit Isaiah Rutherford feeling comfortable at cornerback

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Had someone told Isaiah Rutherford, as a high school freshman football player, that he would become a Division I cornerback, he would have dismissed them.

“No way. It would be insane,” Rutherford said of the hypothetical scenario. “I was not even thinking about cornerback (as a primary position). Or even college, for that matter.”

The University of Alabama was the first to offer Rutherford in August of 2017. Schools then flooded him with offers, including Notre Dame a week after his Alabama camp. Then, Rutherford began his first extended season at corner.

“Ever since then, I have blown up,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford still felt unequipped to handle the position. He relied on his athleticism and lengthy frame — now at 6-1, 174 pounds — to cover opposing receivers. Technique was lacking, he said.

Marlon Blanton, Rutherford’s coach at Carmichael (Calif.) Jesuit, said his development stemmed from drill work and learning to recognize offenses.

“Back pedaling, reading scout and knowing what the offense is going to do, getting his eyes in the right spots, getting his hips and all that in the right spot,” Blanton said.

247Sports and Rivals now grant Rutherford a consensus four-star rating, ranking him as the No. 23 and No. 9 CB, respectively. Rutherford’s progression could also grant him early playing time with the Irish.

When Brian Polian met with him on Tuesday, Rutherford said, the special teams coordinator ran by more ideas. What if Rutherford returned punts and kicks?

He scored on a 90-yard kickoff return on Saturday — just a few hours before committing to Notre Dame.

“They told me I was going to come in and play immediately,” Rutherford said. “Of course, nothing is a given and I am going to have to work for it. But they told me that I have the opportunity to come in and play.”

As recently as July, Rutherford’s top four schools were California, where his father, Reynard Rutherford, starred as a running back in the 90s, LSU, Oklahoma and Oregon.

That expanded with Rutherford’s first official visit to Notre Dame for the Sept. 1 game against Michigan.

“What changed was, they sent me an official (visit offer),” Rutherford said. “I saw that and thought, ‘OK, they are serious about me. I need to take them seriously, because they are obviously a big time program.’”

Fellow commit K.J. Wallace also selected Sept. 1 for his official visit. He compared his encounters with Rutherford to his conversations with Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a 2019 receiver commit.

“You could just kind of tell he was going to commit,’’ Wallace said of Rutherford. “You could just tell by the way he was reacting.”

Reynard never brought up his alma mater during the recruiting process, Isaiah said. In fact, Reynard grew up as an Irish fan. To them, Jesuit, a private Catholic school, felt similar to Notre Dame’s vibe.

“His number one thing was to go to a school where you get a good degree,” Rutherford said. “We are living off his Cal degree, so he talks about that. The second thing was to go to a school where they love you. Notre Dame fits those things, so I felt like that was the best decision.”

Relying on more than just his athleticism and becoming a student of the cornerback position was the emphasis last year. While doing that he also was rushing for 1,468 yards and 17 touchdowns on 169 carries.

An impressive junior season helped Rutherford dissuade any prior doubts of his future. But he’s still not where he wants to be.

“Making sure my man is covered the entire play,” said Rutherford on what he needs to improve. “If I see the quarterback look, I won’t slow down. Or if I get out of my break, out of my back pedal, my break needs to be hard ... even if I know (the receiver’s) not getting the ball.”

The CB model

Against Pitt, TaRiq Bracy presented an early blueprint for Rutherford and Wallace. The true freshman was PFF (Pro Football Focus) College’s second-highest rated player in the contest.

Bracy played in limited spots in the prior six games, and he did not start against the Panthers. When Donte Vaughn struggled, Bracy took over.

“I can see that coach (Todd) Lyght will play whoever,” Rutherford said. “It does not matter how old you are or where you are at if you can do it and he trusts you.”

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has his unit ranked No. 13 in pass efficiency defense.

“It is crazy,” Rutherford said. “This is coach Lea’s first year (as DC), and he has them really, really good and prepared for every game. I was impressed with that and seeing all of the different coverages and disguises they are doing.

“Julian Love, yeah, I think he’s arguably the number one corner in the country. He’s doing really well.”

Bracy’s play hinted that early opportunities are possible. Love — recently named as one of the AP’s midseason All-Americans — exemplifies the gold standard.

“He’s probably the only player I watch,” Wallace said.

While Rutherford is concerned with finishing plays, Wallace, also a four-star, is fixated on improving measurables.

“I need to get this vertical up,” Wallace said. “I just need to work on my ball skills, because that translates to picks.”

Bertrand, Leonard updates

Time is of the essence for Blessed Trinity (Ga.) Catholic’s J.D. Bertrand. The Irish, however, still have not offered the four-star linebacker.

Since decommitting from Georgia earlier this month, Bertrand has visited Florida and Notre Dame. He also reported new offers from Florida State, Wisconsin and TCU. With his increased load, Bertrand said he rejects interviews over the phone.

Should Notre Dame want Bertrand, it might need to offer him soon. The Irish could feel comfortable with their current linebacker class of Jack Kiser and Osita Ekwonu.

After visiting with Rutherford, Polian will journey to the northeast to watch Harrison Leonard’s Thursday practice. Leonard, rated by specialist coach Jamie Kohl as the nation’s seventh-best kicker, could garner a preferred walk-on spot.

Senior Justin Yoon’s replacement could be Leonard, who worked with New England Patriot kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the offseason. The Avon Old Farms (Conn.) product said he’s not sure if Polian wants him to compete for Justin Doerer’s kickoff spot.

Four-star CB Isaiah Rutherford committed to Notre Dame on Saturday.