Analysis: Brian Kelly turns the corner on the Donte Vaughn saga and opts for the present

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

Sometimes you can’t wait ‘til next year, even though it might seem like a good investment.

That’s why on Saturday coach Brian Kelly trotted out senior cornerback Donte Vaughn to match up with Virginia Tech star receiver Damon Hazelton, who had gouged the Irish for a school-record-tying 12 catches for 131 yards and a TD in an ND road win last October and who was averaging 23 yards a reception this season after recovering from a hamstring injury.

It was Vaughn’s fifth game played this season Saturday, in ND’s 21-20 rally past the Hokies (5-3), ending the possibility of a redshirt season and a return to the Irish roster in 2020.

Which just a few weeks ago sounded enticing to both Kelly and the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Memphis, Tenn., product.

The position group with seemingly the most “ifs” by far —on a team that collectively doesn’t figure to have many heading into next season — is cornerback.

If that’s still the case, say, next September, it could be the difference between a playoff run for the Irish or being on the outside looking in, like this season.

“That’s a conversation that Donte and I had, about playing this year, and we wanted him to play,” Kelly said Sunday, a day in which his Irish (6-2) moved up a spot to No. 15 in both the AP and coaches polls.

“He wanted to play, so we were both on the same page for that. We felt like Donte and Troy (Pride) gave us the best chance of winning this year. That’s why both of those guys are on the field. As for next year, we’ll get to that when we get to that.”

Notre Dame, which visits Duke (4-4) Saturday night (7:30 EST; ACC Network), has just 11 players with expiring eligibility after the 2019 season, and three of them are corners — Pride, Vaughn and grad student Shaun Crawford.

The Irish could look into adding a grad transfer at the position, as they did at safety. On Sunday pending Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor, a potential starter next season with a floor of a key rotation player, verbally committed to ND. He’ll have eligibility in 2021 as well.

As it stands, sophomore TaRiq Bracy will be ND’s only cornerback with experience from both a quantity and quality standpoint in 2020. The other three returning corners will be freshmen — KJ Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford and recently converted wide receiver Cam Hart.

Kelly thinned the options earlier this season by moving junior Avery Davis back to running back and shifting sophomore Houston Griffith to his best natural position, safety.

None of the three corners committed to sign with the Irish in December — all deemed three-star prospects — are considered plug-and-play options. But Caleb Offord, Clarence Lewis and Landen Bartleson all offer good size/length at 6-1 and all are considered better athletes than seasoned technicians.

“We’ll have some young players there certainly next year, but there are a number of things you can do to help young players from a defensive standpoint,” Kelly said.

Part of what made the decision to green-light Vaughn’s final season is that he’s been healthy and surging. Neither happened very often in the 2017 or 2018 season, after Vaughn started four times as a freshman in 2016.

Though Vaughn wasn’t exclusively defending Hazelton the entire game Saturday, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Hokies star was limited to five catches for 63 yards and a TD catch with Pride defending. Overall, the Hokies caught only four other passes as Virginia Tech QB Quincy Patterson II labored to go 9-for-28 for 139 yards with an interception.

Vaughn more than doubled his season tackle total Saturday, with six (he now has 11 in 2019) to go along with two pass breakups.

Kelly said Pride and Vaughn were tasked with defending man-to-man with minimal safety help for virtually the entire game. That was so the Irish could slow the Hokies’ run game, which finished with 96 yards on 36 carries (2.7 per attempt).

“Our corners — they gave up some plays, but they were on an island all day,” Kelly said. “And Pride and Vaughn, they battled, they hung in there. And at the end of the day they did what we asked them to do in this game plan and they held up for us.”

Lamb out for Duke

Sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb, a part of ND’s effective third-down specialty defensive package for passing downs, will miss at least the Duke game Saturday night in Durham, N.C., because of a hip injury he sustained against Virginia Tech.

“It’s not surgical,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have further information on that after we have a specialist look at him.”

• Junior captain Robert Hainsey, Notre Dame’s starting right tackle, will undergo surgery Thursday on his fractured left ankle, per Kelly.

• Leading rusher, senior Tony Jones Jr., is expected to play against Duke after missing the Virginia Tech game with a rib injury.

• Sophomore Ja’mion Franklin took advantage of an opportunity to get some No. 2 reps at nose guard Saturday against the Hokies, while freshman Jacob Lacey was ailing with an undisclosed injury. Kelly said Sunday that Lacey is expected to return to his No. 2 status and play against Duke.

• Not only did grad senior Trevor Ruhland excel to the delight of the coaching staff in his first start of the season, filling in for injured starting right guard Tommy Kraemer, he continued to pleasantly befuddle the medical staff.

The Irish ran 91 offensive plays Saturday against Virginia Tech, the most of the Brian Kelly Era in a regulation game, and Ruhland wasn’t a spectator for many of them.

“We thought he was going to be a medical (hardship), quite frankly,” Kelly said of the preseason thinking regarding the oft-injured 6-foot-4, 292-pounder. “We thought that there was no way.

“If you asked our training staff — and I don’t think I’m putting any words in their mouth — they didn’t think that he was going to make it through the summer. But he wanted to play in his (last) year. It was important to him. So it’s great to see him have some success.”

To have sustained success, Kelly realizes there will have to be some rotation at right guard to keep Ruhland fresh. The coach said Sunday that rotation player would be either junior Dillan Gibbons or sophomore John Dirksen.

Book believer

Former Notre Dame All-America QB Joe Theismann not only thinks embattled Notre Dame starting quarterback Ian Book will finish the season strong, he believes the senior with a fifth-year option has an NFL future ahead of him as well.

And he’s let him know it via text message.

“I definitely would come back another year and work on my trade,” Theismann said of the nation’s 60th-ranked QB in passing efficiency. “Work on the position, work on throwing the football, work on my footwork — work on all the little things before you move to the next level.

“There isn’t a quarterback you’ve talked to that hasn’t gone through a rough stretch. All he needs to do is go to class, study, come out and have good practices and get himself ready to play, because I’m a big believer you can’t change yesterday, but you can learn from it.”

Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn and Alohi Gilman, bottom, tackle Virginia Tech QB Quincy Patterson II during ND’s 21-20 win Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

WHO: No. 15 Notre Dame (6-2) at Duke (4-4)

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Wallace Wade Stadium; Durham, N.C.

TV: ACC Network

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 7