Notebook: Cam Hart, Ramon Henderson give Notre Dame more options at cornerback
Notre Dame started spring practice March 27 with far more questions than answers at cornerback.
If not addressed, those could become particularly problematic in new coordinator Marcus Freeman’s defensive scheme, in which he prefers to rely on cornerbacks playing man coverage a vast majority of the time.
Thirteen practices into the spring, head coach Brian Kelly thinks the Irish found some candidates ready to make the leap from inexperienced to reliable. That list starts with junior Cam Hart and sophomore Ramon Henderson.
“When you line them up, those two look as good as anybody in the country,” Kelly said Saturday following spring practice No. 13.
When evaluating physical traits, that praise might not be hyperbolic. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound Hart and 6-1, 189-pound Henderson bring size and reputed speed to a defense that will gladly welcome both attributes.
“Both these guys have elite traits — long, athletic, the ability to play the ball,” Kelly said.
Hart’s development process was slowed in his first two seasons with the Irish due to shoulder issues. He played in three games in 2019 before requiring season-ending surgery. One of his shoulders continued to bother him last season too, said Hart, who has dealt with the issue since high school.
“Coming into this season, I’ve rehabbed, I’ve felt more comfortable not using a brace and not being restricted,” Hart said. “It’s honestly enhanced my game a lot. I feel a lot more comfortable in press coverage. I feel a lot more comfortable tackling and defeating blocks.”
Hart, who was recruited as a three-star wide receiver out of Olney (Md.) Good Counsel, said he feels comfortable making plays on the football too. The ball skills come natural to him, so he can focus on the techniques needed to put him in positions to make those plays.
It’s a mindset Hart needs to embrace too.
“Go get the ball. It’s yours,” Kelly said of the message to Hart. “Because he is going to be in a plus matchup physically with a lot of guys that he goes against. We’re making great progress there.”
Kelly wants Henderson, who saw limited action in five games as a freshman out of Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty, to adopt the same mentality. The prospect of creating turnovers would be a welcomed addition to Notre Dame’s cornerback group, which only accounted for only one interception last season. That was secured by departing starter Nick McCloud, against Pittsburgh.
McCloud finished with a team-high eight pass breakups, but freshman Clarence Lewis had only one less pass breakup in much less playing time. Lewis really started to establish himself the latter half of the season when he started four of the last five games ahead of then-junior TaRiq Bracy and on the opposite side of the field as McCloud.
Bracy (5-10, 180) remains in the mix for playing time in 2021 and could become the top option at nickelback. He needs to rebuild his confidence after the late-season surge from Lewis, who didn’t know what to expect as a freshman.
“I was trying to work on staying patient, actually taking the game in and trying to slow it down for myself,” Lewis said.
Kelly said the 6-0, 192-pound Lewis will benefit from an offseason in the weight room. Fellow cornerback Hart was impressed by what Lewis did as a freshman and expects Lewis to have a big sophomore season.
“Clarence is always comfortable,” Hart said. “He’s always relaxed. He’s never worried about anything. That was something I noticed quickly. That was an attribute of his that allowed him to have the season that he had.”
The depth developed at cornerback this spring includes early enrolled freshmen Philip Riley (6-0, 198) and Ryan Barnes (6-2, 182). Even though more cornerback help is on the way in June in the form of freshmen Chance Tucker and JoJo Johnson, the Irish don’t have to wait for someone to come to the rescue. Lewis, Hart, Henderson and Bracy already have competition behind them.
“I like what Riley and Barnes are doing,” Kelly said. “They’re growing as well. It’s baptism by fire with those two young kids.”
From the infirmary
Kelly provided a lengthy rundown of Notre Dame’s sidelined and rehabbing players this spring:
• Graduate senior linebacker Drew White (ankle) returned to practice in the past week, but Kelly said he’d like to limit his work in next Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game to protect him.
• Freshman defensive end Will Schweitzer required knee surgery Friday, which Kelly deemed very successful.
• Freshman defensive tackle Gabe Rubio has missed some time with a hyperextended elbow. His status for the Blue-Gold Game remains uncertain.
• Junior safety Kyle Hamilton (ankle), senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. (foot) and senior rover Paul Moala (Achilles tendon) have all reached the run progression portion of their rehabilitation.
• Senior offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson (foot), junior nose guard Jacob Lacey (shoulder) and junior quarterback Brendon Clark (knee) remain out for the spring.
• Junior offensive lineman Quinn Carroll, who Rivals ranked as the top Notre Dame offensive line commit in a 2019 class that included Zeke Correll, Andrew Kristofic and John Olmstead, hasn’t received much mention during press conferences when questions are posed about those competing for starting spots on the Irish offensive line.
The 6-6, 306-pound Carroll, who missed the 2019 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, saw action in three games last season as a reserve. The Irish have tested Carroll at both tackle and guard.
“I really like his progress in the weight room,” Kelly said. “He's gotten really strong. And so now, the next level is going out there consistently when we have movement and we have linebackers moving and being able to pick up a lot of that movement.”
• Kelly revealed Notre Dame’s SWAT (Spring/Summer Workout Accountability Team) captains for the offseason. There are 10 teams and three have them have two leaders, leaving the Irish with 13 SWAT captains: quarterback Jack Coan, running back Kyren Williams, wide receiver Avery Davis, offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Josh Lugg, defensive linemen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, linebackers Drew White, Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon, safety Kyle Hamilton, punter Jay Bramblett and kicker Jonathan Doerer.
• The format for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game will be of the traditional variety with full teams of offensive and defensive players for the Blue and Gold teams. Kelly said the Irish may have a couple players used on both teams, and specifically mentioned sophomore nose guard Aidan Keanaaina as someone who will swap sides.