How Notre Dame freshman Donte Vaughn sprouted into a 6-2 cornerback

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Donte Vaughn is the future.

“Future,” in this case, is flexible. On one hand, the freshman cornerback and Memphis native represents the blisteringly talented yet undeniably raw youth littered throughout Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart. The Irish have played 14 true freshmen this season, the most in Brian Kelly’s seven seasons in South Bend. Five of them reside in the defensive backfield — corners Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. and safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott.

But Vaughn also represents the future at the cornerback position. At 6-foot-2 and a leanly distributed 200 pounds, he is a living, breathing, ball-hawking exemplification of what so many coaches suddenly covet.

He has the size of a traditional safety, but the speed of a traditional cornerback.

In other words, there’s nothing traditional about him.

“He’s tall, but he doesn’t have big feet,” Vaughn’s father, Louis Vaughn, said this week. “Usually a guy his size (wears shoe size) 13 or 14, but he just wears 11 or 12. He’s able to play small in a big frame.

“It’s strange, because everybody wants to move him to safety. He’s got a safety’s body, but trust me, he’ll make a great corner.”

Added Rodney Saulsberry, Vaughn’s head coach at Whitehaven High School in Memphis: “He has the lateral quickness. He has the agility. Add the lateral quickness and agility with length and you have a dominant corner. If you can have a dominant corner, that changes so much and allows you to do so much defensively. He’s a greater asset at corner than he could possibly be at safety.”

Or, at quarterback.

Until his sophomore season at Whitehaven, quarterback was the only position Vaughn had ever played. To allow one of his premier athletes to see the field, Saulsberry flipped Vaughn to the other side of the field.

Then, he watched him grow.

“I knew he was athletic enough to do it,” Saulsberry said. “But does he have the desire (to switch positions)? Is he going to want it?

“It was a pleasant surprise. It was like a fish to water. He wanted to learn. He wanted to get it done. The rest is history.”

In South Bend, history is unfolding every week. In five games this season, Vaughn has made 10 tackles. He snagged his first career interception in the end zone against Duke.

Despite the fact that many recruiting services pegged him as a collegiate safety, he’s playing cornerback for Notre Dame (2-5), which hosts Miami (4-3) on Saturday.

Maybe all those scouts forgot to measure his feet.

“He’s loving every day of it,” Louis Vaughn said. “It’s just a great experience and a great opportunity. He’s meeting new people and traveling. It’s just a privilege for him to play for Notre Dame. He just feels like it’s a privilege for him to be there.

“I know him, and he’s going to take full advantage of it.”

According to Torii Hunter Jr., he already is.

When Notre Dame’s senior wide receiver was asked prior to the Stanford game if he had ever played against a cornerback with Vaughn’s size, Hunter smiled, shook his head and said, “Never.”

“You definitely want to stay out of their radius,” Hunter said of battling tall cornerbacks. “It's just so easy for them to get their hands on (the football) because they're so long. Sometimes it's difficult to block longer guys, too, because of how far they can extend their arms.

“So I think he'll definitely be a problem once he starts nailing down his technique and all that. He'll be someone to look for in the future.”

There’s that word again: future. Saulsberry’s future involves grooming more cornerbacks that look and play like Donte Vaughn.

“He’s the prototype of the new age cornerback, and you don’t have many of them,” Saulsberry explained. “Now, it’s what we’re looking for. We’ve actually got a couple guys on the team now that fit that mold. He’s starting a new trend.”

As for Vaughn’s immediate future, the rising freshman should continue to see the field in Notre Dame’s final five games.

But if he has his way, there’ll be six.

“All those guys are upbeat about the prospect of the future,” Louis Vaughn said. “Donte’s excited about it, man. He couldn’t wait to get back to school and get started and try to make a bowl run.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn (35) makes an interception next to Duke’s T.J. Rahming (3) during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN