Analysis: Inspired Cam Hart leads list of 10 Notre Dame players worth a second look this spring

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — If Cam Hart never ascends beyond flavor of the week status this spring, it won’t be because the stage was too big or that both switching positions and undergoing shoulder surgery as a Notre Dame football freshman turned out to be too daunting.

His single mom, January Pridget, didn’t just put food on the table and nudge his dreams along growing up in Baltimore. She inspired, overcoming three brain aneurysms and a neck tumor, and now Hart plays for both of them, with all that resilience and drive percolating inside of him.

“The story of their relationship and the bond that they have is really special,” said Andy Stefanelli, Hart’s high school coach at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, Md.

“He’s been through a lot of stuff and has come out of it with an incredibly positive attitude. What I always loved about him and what you miss about him, he’s always got a smile on his face.

“He just uplifts everyone around him. Those kinds of guys are special.”

That alone would be enough to put the sophomore-to-be cornerback in my list of top 10 players I want to see more of this spring, after the Irish opened with the first of 15 sessions Thursday indoors at the Irish Athletics Center.

But there’s so much more to Hart that makes him a compelling figure this offseason.

The list, topped by Hart, comprises players who I find intriguing because of who and what they might become and how that may affect Notre Dame’s trajectory as a team — if not this season, then in 2021 and beyond.

Spring football resumes after spring break with session No. 2 set for March 17.

That will be the last practice before the Irish switch to full pads and increasing contact. And because Hart is still rehabbing from in-season shoulder surgery, he won’t be able to fully participate.

In fact, 11th-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly seemed a bit surprised Hart did as much as he did on Thursday, when Hart lined up at the boundary cornerback with the second-team defense.

“We’re probably pushing the envelope a little bit with Cam,” Kelly said. “He really wants to be out there, and I think we’re being very cautious, but I think aggressive, with Cam.”

Physically there’s no one quite like Hart among the eight players who will eventually comprise the Irish cornerback depth chart, the position group most fraught with question marks on a team coming off an 11-2 season with playoff aspirations.

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he’s five and six inches taller than projected starters TaRiq Bracy and Shaun Crawford, respectively. He has long arms and the physicality to take on big wide receivers, the position he originally was set to play for the Irish.

A quarterback when he came to Good Counsel, Hart became a wide receiver and safety as a freshman there, and was good enough to be recruited by FBS programs at both positions.

His offer list of 15 offers, mostly regional, and his three-star status per were modest, but suppressed, Stefanelli said, by the fact Hart played through the shoulder injury he eventually aggravated and had surgery on at Notre Dame.

“He was an important part of our team and did incredible things for us, but in terms of pure numbers, they weren’t great,” Stefanelli said. “And that’s what those guys who rank these kids, that’s all they really look at.

“But we always knew what we had and what Notre Dame was getting.”

They did even more so when the Good Counsel coaching staff moved Hart from safety to cornerback on defense for his senior season.

“He’s so long and he has great hips, which a lot of times guys who play safety, that’s why you put them at safety, because they don’t have the hips to play corner,” Stefanelli said. “He did. “And then when we put him there, he played off his pure athletic ability, even more so than at safety, and really flourished there. Honestly when we did all our evaluations internally, when we were kind of looking at where we’d play him, our corners coach said he could play at a really high level if this works out.

“Even though we felt he was good at receiver and safety, he might be best at corner in time. It’s going to take a little time, but Notre Dame may have something really special there.”

Here’s the rest of the top 10:

• Isaiah Rutherford, cornerback: Like Hart, Rutherford redshirted as a freshman in 2019, but behind the scenes he impressed departing starting corner Troy Pride Jr., among others.

“The kid’s relentless,” Pride said last month of his pick to click in 2020, Rutherford. “He’s always going. He’s always wanting extra work ... He’s hungry for the game.”

The 6-1, 189-pounder from Sacramento, Calif., certainly has raw talent, though his most impactful position at Jesuit High in Carmichael was running back.

The Irish, under first-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, need a couple of surprises at the position, especially since they tend to play more than the two starters in their third-down packages.

Isaiah Foskey, defensive end: Another Isaiah, another Californian, and another potential 2021 starter.

That’s not to say the 6-5, 255-pound sophomore from Antioch won’t make noise in 2020, in a tag-team at drop end with fifth-year veteran Daelin Hayes and junior Ovie Oghoufo. In a very small sample size, while staying within the four-game threshold to redshirt in 2019, Foskey had five tackles and a QB hurry, and blocked a punt against Stanford.

Foskey is already well-rounded in terms of defending the run, but there may be no player on the Irish roster with a higher ceiling as a pass rusher.

• Marist Liufau, linebacker: To keep a redshirt season intact, the Irish coaching staff limited the 6-2, 221-pounder from Kalihi, Hawaii, to four games, and had him focus on special teams. It’s which four games they used him that were telling — Georgia, Virginia, USC and Michigan.

Liufau, a late take in the 2019 recruiting cycle, is one reason why the Irish felt confident about passing on taking linebackers in the 2020 class. Now with two strong contenders for the open buck linebacker spot sidelined (Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon), Liufau has an opportunity to impress early this spring.

Hunter Spears, offensive guard: On both the first roster the media was handed Thursday and the do-over a couple of hours later, the 6-4, 304-pound sophomore was still listed as a defensive tackle and with his old No. 90.

The talent influx and strong development at the interior defensive line positions made an experiment with Spears wearing No. 70 at offensive guard an easy decision. So did some O-line injuries that had him already lining up with the No. 2 offense on Thursday.

Even though D-line coach Mike Elston likes to rotate liberally on the defensive line, a clearer path to becoming an eventual starter may be on offense, depending upon how Spears adapts.

Rylie Mills, defensive lineman: The 6-5, 259-pound early enrolled freshman is one of the reasons moving Spears was palatable. He has the position flexibility to play some defensive end, but his most promising path to the top of the depth chart appears inside.

• Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle: Given that the last three starting left tackles for the Irish evolved into first-round NFL Draft picks, and current starter Liam Eichenberg is in his final season at ND, it’s interesting to see who’s being groomed as the next in that lineage.

Starting spring at No. 2 left tackle doesn’t guarantee Kristofic will be the 2021 starter there, with incoming freshman Tosh Baker among those who could challenge, but he’s added some bulk to his athleticism, going from 280 to 292 pounds at 6-5 this offseason.

• Xavier Watts, wide receiver: The early enrolled freshman isn’t the highest-rated wide receiver in the freshman class. The 6-1, 195-pound Nebraskan is not the fastest or biggest receiver on the roster, either. He doesn’t have a clear path to playing time, unless perhaps he moves to defense.

And yet there’s something about his confidence, his quickness, his practice demeanor that makes me want to see more.

Brendon Clark, quarterback: With last year’s backup, Phil Jurkovec, trying this spring to become Boston College’s starter, Clark is ND’s new Plan B behind third-year starter Ian Book.

There’s a clear difference when you watch Book and Clark in practice, and yet Clark has a command that’s reassuring and a knack for avoiding the big mistake — so far. Physically, he looks much stronger and athletic than early enrollee Drew Pyne.

Joe Wilkins, wide receiver: The 6-2, 194-pound Wilkins came to ND expecting to play defensive back. He was so good in an audition at wide receiver as a freshman, though, he’s spent his first two seasons there. Injuries have factored into why he’s been a non-factor at that position so far, with zero career catches.

The junior missed practice No. 1 with strep throat, but there’s optimism he’ll finally shine this spring. But if he can’t push into a significant role in the wide receiver rotation, perhaps it’s time to give him a look at safety or cornerback.