Noie: Notre Dame CB Troy Pride Jr., no satisfied starter

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Satisfaction never is guaranteed for Notre Dame junior cornerback Troy Pride, Jr.

It could be. It should be. Especially given how far Pride has taken his game and his name since this time last year. That second season in, Pride was just another name in the cornerback game for the Irish. Down the depth chart. Not getting nearly as many quality reps in practice as he liked. It left him at times feeling lost and confused and wondering what he had to do to get better so that he could play.

Now one of the two starting corners, Pride approaches every preseason practice — Saturday inside Notre Dame Stadium was No. 8 heading into the season opener against Michigan, which is less than three weeks out — as if he’s that same guy scrambling up the depth chart. Not the one sitting atop. The depth chart, if the Irish defense decided to lean on one, would say that Pride’s a starter. He constantly tells himself he’s not. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week.

Not unless he proves worthy of the position.

“You earn it every day,” Pride said following Saturday’s practice. “I think of myself as each day going into work and there’s a guy across from me that wants my job and if you want to keep your job, you have to do everything you can.”

Pride does, so he does. That means as the Irish are working through their pre-practice stretch routine with music pumping out of the speakers, he’ll run through a mental checklist that runs one question deep — what can he do better that day to be better than the previous day? Sometimes it’s being more mentally tough. If long and lanky receivers Miles Boykin or Chase Claypool beat him on a deep route — and they’ll have chances to do that to a lot of corners this season — can Pride rebound and give it back to both? Can he play the next snap with better technique than the last? Can he diagnose a route quicker? Flip his hips to help ignite his sprinter’s speed and get down the field?

Come day’s end, when all the periods are exhausted and there are no more challenges left to answer, Pride will ask himself if he’s had a good or bad day. He’s had a lot of good ones, but those are quickly set aside.

“It’s over,” he said. “Then come back tomorrow.”

On Saturday, Pride mentioned to fellow corner Donte Vaughn that he wanted to do a better job perfecting the little details that often go unnoticed. Work on his inside step quicker, which can help get him into a receiver’s dig route better. Don’t stay so square in his pre-snap stance.

During one-on-ones, Pride was asked to defend a go route. He did. Then again. He did it again.

When it hit Period No. 22 and the Irish jumped into some 11-on-11 action, Pride busted up the route of wide receiver Chris Finke and knocked a pass to the turf.

“I felt good,” he said. “Working on those minute details is going to help me stay consistent and help me stay on a high level.”

Tag-team tandem

So is working alongside fellow starting corner Julian Love. Opposing offensive coordinators aren’t dummies. They know better than to challenge a boundary corner the caliber of Love, who finished last season with a staggering 20 passes defended. Guy breaking up that many, one might look the other guy’s way. The field corner’s way. Pride’s way.

He’s no dummy either. He knows that if a quarterback has to pick between Love or himself, who finished with two passes defended to go with his 22 tackles in 12 games last season, he’s looking at Pride. Every. Single. Time.

“People are going to see Julian and not want to target him, so they’re going to throw at me,” Pride said. “I’m going to make them pay.”

Pride pulls additional motivation from Love off the field. The two will be in the weight room when Pride’s competitiveness kicks in. If Love’s doing something record-setting worthy, so is Pride. If Love’s lifting 225 pounds, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Pride’s next.

“I’m like, all right. Let’s go,’” he said. “I just want to compete.”

In everything. Except maybe not the 100m dash where Pride finished seventh in May at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships in 10.56 seconds.

“He’s got some speed too,” Pride said of Love. “I don’t think he wants that action yet.”

Last year was a long one for Pride. He paid a price when he struggled to figure everything out. He often was left with more questions than answers, particularly early in the season. That’s when former Irish cornerback Nick Watkins got the bulk of the reps as the starter. In practices. In games. The more Pride tried, the more lost he felt. Physically, Pride felt he could compete. Mentally, it was a different story. He wasn’t all there. Not the way he needed to be. Had to be. He’d go days without touching the ball. Without seeing it. It wore on him.

“Last year, I was a little iffy,” he said. “I was in a neutral zone. I’m like, am I playing well or not?”

Pride stayed with it, believed in his abilities and was better toward the end of the year. He targeted spring to make his leap. He leaped. Right over and past Watkins, who headed for Houston as a graduate transfer. Settling in as the starter has allowed Pride to bring out more of who he is and can be on the football field. Last year at the time, his head was too filled with calls and coverage question marks to let loose. Not now. This preseason, he’s been more of everything on the football field. Faster. Louder. Stronger. Confident.

“A complete turnaround from last year,” he said. “It’s a new year and it’s a new Troy.”

One that’s part of a really good defense. Maybe elite good. The more you see of them, the more you realize that this can be a special group. A difference-making unit. The flying around. The making plays. The athletic ability. The depth. Goes back to Pride insisting that the Irish defense doesn’t really work off a depth chart. There are no ones or twos. Just at least two dozen guys who plug into positions and can play.

How deep are the Irish? Defensive end Daelin Hayes spent time Saturday with the second unit. That’s scary.

“Our defense is pretty good,” said coach Brian Kelly.

With a chance to get a whole lot better. How much better?

“The best in the country,” Pride said. “Easily. Anything less is not what our potential is.”

Pride will work this season with a different mindset, and a different number. He wore No. 18 his first two years. It was good. He liked it, but something about him was missing. He had a chance this offseason to switch to No. 5 – the number he wore his junior year of high school in Greer, S.C. In a way, the switch would return him to his football roots. Back to when he first figured out that he could play the game at a high level. That he could make plays all over the place. That he could be good.

“Five is where I thrive,” Pride said. “That’s where I can play. Everything’s come full circle and I’m ready to ball.”

Guaranteed.

Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. runs a drill during Saturday morning's practice inside Notre Dame Stadium.