Former Notre Dame CB Donte Vaughn believes in himself as he fashions a future

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Donte Vaughn believes.

His four seasons as a Notre Dame cornerback came with plenty of pain and disappointment, yet Vaughn remains steadfast in his belief that he will make something more of it.

Vaughn made it out of Memphis (Tenn.) Whitehaven four years ago, pushing away from his comfort zone in search of something bigger.

“My purpose on this earth is my family,” Vaughn said. “I’ve been blessed with all these abilities and talents. God gave me these for a reason, and that was to maximize everything that I have around me in order to lead my family to a better place when it’s all said and done.”

Vaughn’s talents allowed him to play in 10 games and start four of them as a freshman in 2016. That disastrous 4-8 season resulted in major coaching staff changes including a new defensive coordinator in Mike Elko. Vaughn wanted to carry that momentum into a new regime on defense, but his body wouldn’t cooperate.

First came the hamstring and quad issues during preseason camp of his sophomore season. Then came a right shoulder injury that he shrugged off as soreness. Vaughn played with that shoulder injury as a junior too. He also broke a bone in his right hand just before the start of that 2018 season.

At least then the Irish were having success as a team with an undefeated regular season. That was until Notre Dame’s run at a national championship came crashing down in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson.

Vaughn found himself in the spotlight in the worst way. When he replaced an injured Julian Love at cornerback in the first half, Clemson opened up a 23-3 halftime lead with two touchdown passes thrown in Vaughn’s vicinity.

In the offseason that followed, Vaughn finally addressed his shoulder injury — which turned out to be a torn labrum — with surgery. He missed spring practice as a result. Then he started preseason camp in the starting lineup before dealing with more quad issues.

Nothing seemed to be working in Vaughn’s favor. After not playing in three of the first five games of his senior season, Vaughn needed something to change. He discussed with Notre Dame’s coaching staff if a redshirt season was in the works. Instead, he was called upon to be part of the game plan to shut down USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.

Vaughn wasn’t left on an island to cover Pittman. Both he and TaRiq Bracy rotated to share the workload with a safety often assigned to help over the top. The plan worked to limit Pittman to four catches for 29 yards. He finished the season with 101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation’s best receiver.

Vaughn would have been permitted to play in only one more game if he wanted to redshirt, but that performance gave him the confidence to commit to finishing out the season.

“Once I got momentum going, I thought, ‘Why stop the momentum?’” Vaughn said. “That’s what I was looking to have since my freshman year.”

Vaughn found a regular spot in the rotation while playing in each of the remaining seven games and starting three of them. Vaughn finished the season with 16 tackles and five pass breakups after failing to record any pass breakups as a sophomore or junior.

It was far from a storybook season for Vaughn, but he was able to make an impact while finishing his career with his fellow classmates.

“It always hurt me to see them out on the field when I wasn’t on the field going to war with them,” Vaughn said. “Once I got the chance to actually be back out there and actually perform and help out the team, that was one of the best feelings in the world.”

Pro Day letdown

Vaughn probably can’t put together a long highlight package to show NFL scouts. If he’s going to get a chance at professional football, it will be because a team believes he can be better than what he was at Notre Dame.

Vaughn set out to start proving that in January when he signed with an agent and started training with Athlete Innovations in Tampa Bay, Fla. Vaughn didn’t receive a combine invite, so his big shot was supposed to come at Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

By late March, that critical opportunity would be wiped away as the pre-draft circuit shut down in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Vaughn already had spoken to personnel from the New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Chargers, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself in front of all 32 teams that were expected to attend the Irish Pro Day.

Vaughn was already back in South Bend preparing for Pro Day, so he decided to participate in a private workout with former teammates Julian Okwara, Jalen Elliott and Troy Pride Jr. They had the event filmed in order to ship the footage off to NFL teams.

“It feels like I’m a high school player telling a coach to check out my Hudl (highlights),” Vaughn said. “It’s a crazy process, but we’ve all been sticking together and working through this. It’s not only affecting one person. It’s affecting all of us.”

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Vaughn recorded a 40-yard dash of 4.56 seconds and 20-yard shuttle of 4.16. He ran slightly faster (4.52) when he recorded his 40-yard dash previously in Tampa Bay.

A 4.52 at the NFL Combine would have been faster than nine of the 29 cornerbacks who completed the 40. A 4.16 in the shuttle would have slated fifth out of 13 cornerbacks and one-tenth of a second faster than Pride’s time.

Getting scouts to believe the numbers from workouts they couldn’t attend in person remains the challenge for Vaughn and hundreds of other draft prospects.

Don Croire

Vaughn graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in sociology, but he’s always had a passion for fashion. Before he finished his Irish career, he was already working on launching a clothing line branded Don Croire.

Vaughn started by designing a fashion duffel bag with a limited release in December. In the months since, former teammates Dexter Williams, Alizé Mack, Miles Boykin, Khalid Kareem and Troy Pride Jr. have sported the bags. The December release also included a puffer jacket.

“I’m just a fashion person,” Vaughn said. “If you asked anybody on the team, when it came to shoes and stuff like that, I was checking off all the boxes. I always liked fashion and looking good.”

Vaughn has studied the industry while working on Don Croire. He met with Ralph Lauren vice president Maureen Whitaker in New York City and Wolf & Shepherd founder Justin Schneider in Los Angeles. Both are Notre Dame graduates and monogram winners in lacrosse and track and field, respectively.

Vaughn’s next release includes T-shirts, pants and hats set to be available this spring/summer. The production has been slowed by his manufacturer temporarily closing down in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Vaughn currently operates through an Instagram account (@doncroire) and plans to launch a website when the spring/summer line production finishes.

The name of Vaughn’s brand is personal too. Don is short for Donte. Croire means “believe” in French.

Believe in Donte.

“In my time here at Notre Dame, I learned how to fight through adversity and still believe in myself in the end,” Vaughn said. “No matter what you’re faced with, believe in yourself and believe in the ability that you have.”

Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn (8) stands with teammates Shaun Crawford (20) and Troy Pride Jr. (5) following a senior day victory over Boston College on Nov. 23, 2019. Vaughn is hoping to get a call from an NFL team next week, but is already making a name for himself as a fashion designer.
Trying to get noticed by NFL scouts makes former Notre Dame cornerback Donte Vaughn (left) feel like he’s a young recruit in high school again.
Cornerback Donte Vaughn (right) was part of Notre Dame's plan to limit USC star wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. last season. The Irish were successful in allowing Pittman to catches only four passes for 29 yards.
Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn is greeted by family during senior day festivities last season at Notre Dame Stadium. Vaughn choose not to redshirt last season in order to finish his collegiate career with his classmates.
Notre Dame defensive back Donte Vaughn pushes Nathan Gosz, 7, through the Mishwaka Meijer store during a Shop with a Player event in December 2018. Vaughn, who hopes to play in the NFL, is also an aspiring fashion designer.