Notre Dame's tweaked CB recruiting philosophy shows in new signee Ramon Henderson

Staff reports
ND Insider

Years of whiffing on evaluating and recruiting cornerbacks resulted in Notre Dame tweaking its philosophy this past winter.

The Irish coaching staff started to prioritize three attributes when evaluating defensive backs: makeup speed, length and ball skills. The staff feels its four new cornerbacks from the 2020 recruiting class — Caleb Offord, Landen Bartleson, Clarence Lewis and Ramon Henderson — have those characteristics.

Makeup speed, length and ball skills may be the most apparent in Henderson, the final cornerback and recruit out of 18 who signed to Notre Dame on Wednesday. He made his decision public from Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty High, capping the three-day early signing period without drama or surprises. Long favoring Notre Dame, Henderson took an official visit for the Sept. 28 home game against Virginia.

At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Henderson possesses the lengthiest frame among the four commits. He clocked a blazing 10.59 100-meter dash time in the spring. Henderson began his recruitment garnering scholarship offers as an outside wide receiver known as deep-threat with a penchant for hauling in jump balls.

When Henderson transferred to Liberty prior to his junior season, head coach Bryan Nixon wanted him to serve as a two-way player and try cornerback.

“He’s physical, he’s big and there’s no telling once he gets on a consistent weight program,” Nixon said. “He runs track, so he’s on an on-again, off-again time. When those things start taking place and the maturation process works, there’s no telling. He could be 210.”

As in 210 pounds, the same weight as freshman standout safety Kyle Hamilton. At the time Hamilton committed to Notre Dame, he represented one of the lowest-ranked members of Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting class. But he possessed the speed, length and ball skills that eventually caught the eye of Rivals, 247Sports and others.

The Irish hope their process with Hamilton translates to cornerback recruiting, particularly this cycle. Cornerback looks to be Notre Dame’s biggest need this offseason after Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn leave. Inexperience replaces them at boundary cornerback.

Simply obtaining the 40-yard dash times and various other measurables of cornerbacks had not been an effective evaluation tool.

“Internal conversations obviously routinely occur when it comes to speed,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We wanted verifiable speed other than, he’s running a 4.4 (40-yard dash). OK, you’re going to have to prove it.

“Show me you’re running a 4.4. Give me verifiable times. We can no longer move forward on, this is what he runs. So it was just more intentional in terms of getting verifiable numbers.”

Henderson’s newness to cornerback and the nuances of the position’s technique makes him more of a developmental project than plug-and-play option. But the Irish value Henderson for what could become of his skill set.

Like the potential that comes with his 100-meter dash, one that edges speedster receiver Braden Lenzy’s best time in high school, 10.62 seconds.

“So the one thing about how important track is, and also the education of the difference between a good 100 (meter dash) time,” said special teams and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian. “What if a guy only runs a 200-meter? What if he’s a distance guy? How we do translate a split in a 4 by 1 to a verified speed?

“We literally did some research on that in the winter into the spring in terms of, is he really fast, what does a really good 110 high hurdle, how does that equate to football speed?”

Whether Henderson cashes in on those measurables remains to be seen. He faces a battle as one of Notre Dame's nine early enrollees, which includes graduate transfer safety Isaiah Pryor.

Other than learning technique and the playbook, Henderson may face challenges with his abnormally long strides for a cornerback. He still runs like a track star playing receiver. Those movements don’t bode well for corners that must change direction in an instant.

Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, also projects Henderson as a work in progress. But elite potential? It’s there.

“He has the quick-twitch athletic ability to be good, so I wouldn’t worry about his long strides,” Lemming said. “He’s going to have to learn how to be a corner anyways. He’s got loose hips and is a good athlete. He’s just not a great player yet, but he could be. He’s got really good speed and is smart.”

247Sports bought into Henderson during his senior season, bumping him to four-star status and to its No. 11 athlete and No. 266 overall player. Rivals still considers Henderson as a three-star recruit. The Henderson addition brought the national ranking of this Irish class to No. 14 and 15 overall, respectively.

Oklahoma, UCLA, Washington, Tennessee and Utah were among schools that seemed to favor 247Sports’ thinking over Rivals regarding Henderson. They offered Henderson a scholarship as a cornerback after obtaining a large enough sample size of him playing the position.

Because like Notre Dame, they saw the possibilities with the converted receiver — even if those possibilities aren’t abundantly clear at the moment.

“His ceiling is so high,” Nixon said. “Once he starts focusing on just that one position, he’s going to grow so fast. Because once again, he doesn’t have to turn around and play receiver for the next 45 minutes of practice. There’s special teams and those types of things too. I’m sure he’ll be a special teams guy wherever he decides to go.

“But it’s one of those things where he’ll be able to focus on the little things and the intricacies of that position daily.”

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Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty's Ramon Henderson, a 2020 cornerback, committed to Notre Dame on Dec. 18.