Notebook: CB Troy Pride Jr. leads the next wave of ascenders on Notre Dame's defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The fastest player on Notre Dame’s defense started the season looking like an afterthought.

Sophomore cornerback Troy Pride Jr.’s recent play in both practices and during in-game, mop-up duty has prompted Irish head football coach Brian Kelly and his defensive staff to think again.

“I think you have to develop the trust in practice to earn it in the game,” Kelly said Thursday after practice as his ninth-ranked Irish (6-1) continue preparations for a date with No. 14 North Carolina State (6-1), Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“And we’re getting that from him in practice. So that’s going to get you some game opportunity. And then in the game, we’re seeing some success there as well.”

He’s not alone. A surging Notre Dame defense, up to 12th nationally in scoring defense (16.4 points per game), has been sparked in part by its surprising depth. And Kelly hinted it’s about to get deeper.

In addition to Pride, linebackers Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones — no relation, but both sophomores — and junior defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway have soared recently, according to Kelly.

“When they get their opportunity, they have to make us notice them,” Kelly said. “(Defensive end) Khalid Kareem did that earlier, and then we see where he’s gone. So there’s a bunch of guys on the cusp defensively.”

The 6-foot, 187-pound Pride is the front-runner in the next wave, both in terms of the number of game opportunities and the increasing high-leverage nature of his snaps. The Greer, S.C., product, who was pursued ardently by N.C. State in the recruiting process, had four tackles in ND’s 49-14 rout of arch-rival USC last Saturday night.

That more than doubled his season tackle total, to seven.

“I think you’ll continue to see more from him,” Kelly said of the former South Carolina high school state track champ in multiple events. “I think his role will continue to expand.

“The other thing you’re seeing is physical development. He’s making great strides from a physical standpoint in what we’re doing in our weight room as well. So I think both of those things are coming together for him.”

Personnel matters

Junior running back Dexter Williams (ankle) still appears on track to see his first game action in five weeks on Saturday, per Kelly.

“Looked good,” Kelly said of Williams’ practice performances this week. “We engaged him back on special teams as well, so he could be able to impact the game.”

When healthy, Williams is ND’s No. 2 option for the nation’s No. 6 rushing team. But injuries have helped limit him to just 20 carries this season. He’s made the most of them, averaging 10.7 yards per carry with four rushing touchdowns, and a TD on his only pass reception of the season.

• Senior linebacker Greer Martini continues to impress in practice, two weeks after he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery for a meniscus tear.

“Looks good,” Kelly said of ND’s fourth-leading tackler. “He’s on all special teams, he’ll be playing.”

Kelly did not commit to Martini starting, however. Junior Te’von Coney, ND’s leading tackler, has been in a time share with Martini this season and had a game-high 11 tackles in Martini’s absence Saturday against USC.

• Kelly termed wide receiver Cam Smith as doubtful (hamstring) for N.C. State after Smith missed the USC game.

The Arizona State grad transfer has made four starts, and has eight receptions for 60 yards and a TD in his first season with the Irish.

Catching up with Hines

The only thing keeping N.C. State junior Nyheim Hines from cracking the top five nationally in punt returns is volume.

At 19.6 yards per return, Hines would rank fourth nationally if he had a couple more returns this season to meet the minimum per game required for inclusion in the national stats. So teams have been somewhat successful in punting away from him.

Kelly certainly would love to follow that blueprint, or at least have his punt coverage team far exceed its No. 88 standing in that statistical category.

“We can’t outkick our coverage — 55-yard punts are not good for us,” Kelly said. “I mean, we can’t stretch out our coverage units, where we give big space and field for a guy like this. We need 4.5-, 4.4- (second) hang time. I’ll take 38- to 40, 42 (yards) and give us great coverage opportunities.

“The punting is going to be really key in this game, with a dangerous return man.”

The 5-9, 197-pounder is also dangerous as a kickoff return man (23.4), as a running back (team-leading 648 yards on 116 carries and six TDs) and as a receiver out of the backfield (16 catches, 89 yards).

He’s fourth nationally and leads the ACC in all-purpose yards, with 178.4 per game. Hines is also the first FBS player this century with touchdowns of 80 or more yards on both a punt return and a rush in the same game — a 35-17 win at Pitt on Oct. 14.

Tackling the future

Kelly admitted Thursday that the time share at right offensive tackle between redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer and true freshman Robert Hainsey was in part attempted with an eye toward 2018.

With left tackle Mike McGlinchey exhausting his eligibility at the end of the current season and left guard Quenton Nelson likely passing on his final season (2018), the Kraemer-Hainsey tag team gives Kelly and line coach Harry Hiestand the strong possibility of having four players with starting experience on the O-Line next season, joining center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

The right tackle arrangement has worked out pretty well for the present, too.

“Sharing the load with two first-time starters,” Kelly said of the current benefits, “and then their skill set is a little bit different. Hainsey (6-5, 290) is a really good technician as it relates to his pass sets and his ability to handle the pass game, and Kraemer (6-6, 314) is more physical right now, with his size.

“They seem to be a good blend to work together.”

Fast-forwarding the passing game

Kelly said last week that first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush finally seemed to master the two-minute drill in practice.

So this week, the Irish coach ratcheted up the pressure and the speed.

“There was only 50 seconds on the clock,” Kelly said. “Last week it was 2:15. He had a couple of timeouts.

“(This time) he just had to do some different things. He had to fire the ball, center the ball for the field goal. There was a lot more on his plate in terms of having to make some quick decisions. Last week, he had plenty of time on the clock, he had two timeouts. It was almost a four-minute drill.

“This one was a lot quicker. He had to think faster. He had to move faster. He had to make some key throws, and he did a nice job.”

It’s significant, because while Wimbush has been prolific as a runner (508 yards, 10 TDs), his pass-efficiency rating (116.7) is a slowly improving 91st nationally, 67 spots lower than his N.C. State counterpart, Ryan Finley (150.7).

“I think recognition is getting better,” Kelly said of Wimbush. “Pocket awareness, recognition, all those things he’s sensing a little bit better.”

Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. takes down USC QB Matt Fink (19) during ND's 49-14 victory last Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)