CB Troy Pride Jr. back on track for Notre Dame and doing justice to his talent

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The conversations with Rocket Ismail and Allen Rossum will probably stay with Troy Pride Jr., forever.

The conversation the Notre Dame sophomore cornerback had with himself, when he became a depth chart afterthought, is the biggest reason why his story line has changed so much in the past several weeks.

“Coach (Mike) Elko likes to talk about if you don’t like where you are, you have the power to change it,” Pride said referring to ND’s first-year defensive coordinator and presider over the nation’s No. 10 scoring defense.

“So when I saw that I wasn’t a big part of anything, I just told myself, ‘OK you’re not doing something right. You’re not doing enough. You’re not on the level that you’re supposed to be.’

“So I came to the realization, ‘Let’s do it. I want to be here. I know where I want myself, and I know what I can do. So let’s get there.’ It wasn’t, ‘I’m sad, or I’m depressed.’ It was, ‘There’s more work to be done.’ ”

The work is showing up in Pride nudging himself into the talented cornerback rotation as the Irish continue their recent run of facing elite opposing quarterbacks — USC’s future first-round NFL draft pick Sam Darnold (Oct. 21), N.C. State’s previously interception-free Ryan Finley (Oct. 28), and Saturday, one of the most improved players in the country, Wake Forest senior John Wolford.

Wolford, actually is statistically superior to Darnold and Finley — and all but six quarterbacks in the entire FBS. His 167.92 passing-efficiency rating is roughly 20 points higher than Riley Skinner’s single-season school record. And at No. 7 nationally, Wolford is exactly 100 spots higher than where he finished last season.

Wolford, also Wake’s leading rusher, will be without his top receiver, redshirt freshman Greg Dortch (out for the season with an abdominal injury), when the Demon Deacons (5-3) visit the CFB No. 3 and AP fifth-ranked Irish (7-1) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT, NBC-TV).

And he’ll have to face Notre Dame’s version of the Justice League, apparently sans Wonder Woman.

“We don’t have that,” Pride said with a laugh.

What ND’s five-man cornerback crew do have is Batman (Nick Watkins), Aquaman (Julian Love), Black Condor (Shaun Crawford), Cyborg (Donte Vaughn) and Flash (Pride).

Kind of like #33Trucking, but for defense.

“We wanted to make a name for ourselves,” Pride said of the Irish cornerbacks. “That’s when the Justice League came up as a pretty good group to set ourselves as — superheroes to save the day. That’s what we aspire to be.”

How that’s translated to actual football aspirations is Notre Dame checking in this week as the nation’s No. 33 team in pass-efficiency defense, with limited contributions from a rebuilding safety position group. That’s up from No. 79 last season, and ND’s best standing since its 2012 team finished 16th in that category.

Love, Watkins and Crawford have been season-long contributors and statistical stars, with Watkins and Love actually flipping roles a few weeks ago. That’s about the time when Pride re-entered the mix with increasing volume of game action and in increasingly high-leverage situations.

“What I’ve done is focused on getting back into playing football, getting into my technique more, just being a student of the game overall,” he said.

“It just clicks sometimes, and you get to the point where you’re like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is what I’m doing.’ Then you start doing it well, doing it consistently.

“That gets you to where you want to be.”

Pride was in a prominent position last season, once Elko’s predecessor, Brian VanGorder, was purged after the first four games of a 4-8 season. Up to that point, Pride was on scout team and destined for a redshirt year.

Kelly and clandestine interim coordinator Mike Elston decided to take a look at some of the younger players and expanded the playing rotation throughout the defense, especially among the then-freshman class who are now surging as sophomores

“I think we knew who we were, and it was just about getting to that point where we were doing everything we could do to expand these abilities,” he said of the ascending sophomores. “There’s talent everywhere, but sometimes it’s bottled up, because they’re not willing to put in the work. We have.”

Pride ended up playing in each of the remaining eight games in 2016, starting three. He finished with 12 tackles and a fumble recovery.

He then went out for track and field, the sport in which he had won four South Carolina state titles (100-meter dash, 200, 400, 400 relay) in the spring of 2016 for Greer High School. He ended up being the top men’s Irish sprinter last winter and spring.

But as he was doubling up in the two sports last spring and ND began spring football practice, Pride started to fade on the depth chart. Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght hinted there could be a connection, but head coach Brian Kelly, earlier this week, wasn’t having any of it.

“I’m all in on playing a second sport as long as there’s some give and take,” Kelly said. “From a scholarship standpoint we’re paying the freight, and I don’t want to put him behind. I don’t think it necessarily put him behind in a sense as much as physically he needed to continue to grow.

“He’s now up to 190 pounds. He’s physically stronger. I think it was more just of a maturation. So I love having those guys compete in another sport. And we’ve been able to work really well with our other sports to be able to make that work.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for being able to compete in another sport. I mean, we’ll have that with (tight end) Cole Kmet. Cole’s going to play baseball, and we’ll have to work with Mik (Aoki) getting a schedule that makes sense, and I’m sure we will. I’m all for doing that.”

Pride insists track helped make him a faster football player, a better football player — even if it took a while to manifest.

“I came to Notre Dame, because I thought it would make me the best overall person — as a man, as an athlete, you know overall,” he said. “So in that decision, I want to (explore) all the opportunities that I have here.”

The track/football connection prompted him to connect with two former football standouts, Ismail and Rossum, who not only competed in track during their ND football careers but earned All-America status in that sport.

“They just tell me keep steadfast, keep working,” Pride said. “There’s never something you can’t do. So it’s just continuing to strive for greatness, really, in whatever I do.

“They weren’t specifically talking about track. They were talking about overall what I’m doing here. It’s just great to have those kinds of connections at Notre Dame.

“I’ve really been trusting the process. I know that if I continue to do the things that are right, the things that are good, the things that are going to accelerate my progression, I’m going to be good.”

Notre Dame assistant coach Todd Lyght (left) and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. are on the same page as the sophomore's role has started to expand over the past few weeks. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)