Notre Dame CB Troy Pride brings road rage to former recruiting infatuation Virginia Tech

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

It’s hardly a sentimental journey for Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr., back to the school and the reverberating stadium that he once envisioned and committed to calling home.

Unless you’re talking about twisted sentiments. Extremely twisted sentiments.

“It’s about our competitive nature,” Pride summed up of No. 6 Notre Dame’s first-ever foray into iconic road venue Lane Stadium to clash with No. 24 Virginia Tech on Saturday night (8 EDT broadcast time; ABC-TV).

“It’s about wanting to be a better team on a stage like that,” Pride continued. “You want everybody to be going against you. You want everybody to be screaming at you. You want bottles thrown at your bus — stuff like that — so that you can prove everybody wrong, have everybody shut up.

“I remember the great picture of (ND defensive end) Julian Okwara shushing the crowd at Michigan State, and you want that. That’s what competition is. and that’s what you want to be. You want to be in that moment. That’s a privilege.”

Too often, though, since ND’s national title game run in 2012, it’s been a disaster scenario for the Irish. Notre Dame is 1-8 in its last nine true road games against the AP Top 25.

Virginia Tech (3-1) doesn’t have recent history going for it, either, in this big-picture, big implication matchup with the Irish (5-0). The Hokies’ last takedown of a ranked team at home was a 31-7 rout of No. 9 Miami (Fla.) nine season ago. Six losses in Top 25 matchups at Lane Stadium have ensued.

The Hurricanes also happen to be the focal point of the road image the Irish hope to shed Saturday night, specifically Miami’s 41-8 dismantling of ND last November that pushed its 2017 playoff aspirations into a sinkhole.

“It’s a totally different team. We have a totally different mindset,” said Pride, who along with his teammates may have heard that comparison more this week than Virginia Tech’s Stadium anthem, Enter Sandman by Metallica, piped into practice.

“To bring up the Miami game (where there actually were bottles thrown at the team bus, including one that cracked a window), it has no correlation to what we’re going to do this year and what we’re going to accomplish as a team.

“Fact of the matter is, we’re going into a hostile environment and we want to play well. That’s always been our goal. That’s always what we’ve wanted to do.”

The difference between this Irish team and those that were a part of the 1-8 road meltdowns might be defense, which, when it’s elite, tends to play well in big games on the road.

That certainly was the case with the 2012 ND squad that sideswiped two top 10 teams at their own stadiums that year, Michigan State and Oklahoma, by a combined score of 50-16.

This Irish squad’s defensive identity is still evolving, but its 38-17 smothering of Stanford, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, continues to hint at one that could be special. Its strongest statistical evidence of that to date is an area in which Pride is greatly involved.

Notre Dame stands 12th in pass-efficiency defense coming into Blacksburg, Va. That’s up from 46th the end of last season and 79th from the 2016 season, when Pride arrived as a freshman and played a lot once defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged after four games.

In the 28 seasons that the NCAA has charted and ranked that stat as the true measure of a team’s prowess against the pass, the Irish have only finished two seasons higher than their current standing, 10th in both instances.

One was in 2002, when the Irish had two All-America cornerbacks — consensus selection Shane Walton and third-teamer Vontez Duff. The other was 1996, the last year of the Lou Holtz Era and a season in which the Irish, behind Bertrand Berry, amassed a school-record 41½ sacks.

For his part in ND’s no-fly-zone defensive persona, Pride leads the Irish in interceptions (2) and is second in pass breakups (5) to fellow junior corner Julian Love (10), ND’s season and career record holder. The Greer, S.C., product is also fifth on the team in tackles (26) and has 1½ for loss.

Had he not had a change of heart, Pride would, in all likelihood, be starting for the Hokies Saturday night on a pass defense that could really use him.

While reputed Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster has molded a young and diluted unit into the nation’s No. 4 rush defense, Tech’s pass-efficiency defense ranking stands at an uncharacteristicly mediocre 83rd.

Since Foster took over Virginia Tech’s defense in 1996, no FBS team owns more sacks (825) or has forced more interceptions (377). and the latter was a big part of the appeal to Pride, who initially verbally committed to play for Foster and head coach Justin Fuente during his high school junior year.

“I was looking forward to competing in the ACC,” Pride said of his initial pledge. “Looking forward to playing with some high-caliber defensive backs. They had a good lineage of those — DeAngelo Hall, the Fullers (Kyle and Kendall), Kam Chancellor, those guys. I was looking forward to playing in that realm.”

Even now, of the 13 Virginia Tech players on active NFL rosters, five are cornerbacks.

Part of what ND is in the Kelly Era is flipped commitments in quantity and quality. Seven such players are projected starters for the Irish Saturday night, nine if you count nickel Houston Griffith and kickoff man Jonathan Doerer.

“Notre Dame’s different,” Pride said of his change of heart. “Notre Dame offers a different style of everything — the stage that Notre Dame plays on each and every week, the academics. Everybody knows four for 40.

“Just that and then the coaching staff. It was a totally different switch, I felt very comfortable with all the coaches. I just knew this is the place I’m supposed to be. I took one visit, went to the USC game (in 2015), and I knew at that point.”

The Irish coaching staff liked what they saw in Pride, even though he was a three-star prospect, weighed just 165 pounds at 6-foot, and was more accomplished in track and field than football when they began to wrest him from Virginia Tech.

“He was a fit in terms of his character,” Kelly recalled this past week of what drew them to Pride. “That has to be a primary concern, the cultural fit for us. That was there.

“And then we were at a point where we were looking for great speed at the position, and he certainly had that. We expected to develop him, certainly. He was undersized and needed the weight room. He was not a finished product.”

And Pride plays with the fire of someone who isn’t a finished product, even though he’s come light years in his development since the last four games of 2017, when he overtook then-starter Nick Watkins.

On Saturday night, Pride and the Irish defense will face a quarterback who’s statistically tops in passing efficiency (17th) of any signal-caller on the Irish schedule, upcoming or in the rear-view mirror. and while redshirt junior Ryan Willis is making just his second start in a Hokies uniform, filling in for injured Josh Jackson, he made 10 starts while at Kansas — all losses.

Former ND head coach Charlie Weis and current Irish director of player development Ron Powlus — on Weis’ staff at Kansas when Willis was in high school — recruited the high school teammate of ND running back Jafar Armstrong to Kansas.

Willis, who sat out last season as a transfer, is the reigning ACC Player of the Week for leading the Hokies to a 31-14 upset at then No. 22 Duke last Saturday.

“He’s a capable guy,” Pride said. “We’ve watched a lot of film on him. He can play. They’re obviously very prepared.

“And we’re looking forward to our preparation outweighing theirs.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly expects cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (5) to revert to earlier form after struggling last Saturday night against Navy.