While Cam Hart expected to be a factor in Notre Dame’s cornerback conversations even back when he was recruited as a receiver, Clarence Lewis may not have, at least not already, though sought as a three-star cornerback only a year ago.
But now the former receiver — now a junior cornerback with three career tackles — and the rising sophomore cornerback are the presumptive Irish starters, buttressed by sophomore Ramon Henderson along with senior Tariq Bracy, per head coach Brian Kelly. Hart’s length and Lewis’ impressive freshman season will make them notable starters in this weekend’s Blue-Gold Game (Saturday; 12:30 ET; broadcast exclusively on Peacock, NBC’s streaming app).
Given how much Lewis was discussed as he started six games in his debut campaign, making 33 tackles with seven pass breakups, Hart has been the greater surprise this spring. One might have assumed Bracy would join Lewis in the starting lineup, but instead, it has been Hart receiving consistent praise this month.
“A lot of this is a combination of technique and being much more of an aggressive mindset instead of a reactive, defensive mindset,” Kelly said Saturday. “That’s coming together with Cam. He’s got the skills. He’s got the length. He’s strong physically. He’s one of our strongest, if not our strongest, defensive backs.”
The transferable skills between receiver and defensive back are obvious — tracking the ball in the air, speed, length, etc. — but to hear Hart tell it, he never really switched from receiver so much as momentarily switched to receiver. And in this instance, that is using the classic and exact definition of “momentarily,” for a moment.
Hart played cornerback in high school and Notre Dame’s coaching staff discussed both possibilities in his recruitment. It was only when arriving in South Bend that Hart dabbled a bit on the offensive side of the ball, but soon thereafter, former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea came looking for a starting-caliber cornerback. Notre Dame had Javon McKinley at receiver, not to mention the current senior quartet, but past recruiting failures have left the Irish more desperate in the defensive backfield.
Hart was up for the switch.
“I just always keep in the back of my mind that I’m one of the top corners, no matter what,” Hart said. “I always think, next play mentality.”
That next play mentality is the most important thing for any cornerback. When asked how he recovers from inevitably making mistakes, Hart did not dispute the premise like a player at nearly any other position would. He acknowledged that reality with the balance of humility and confidence needed from a cornerback.
“We’re going to give up catches, we’re going to give up long balls,” Hart said. “Just always have to have the mentality to bounce back and control your emotions. I take that on the field with me every day.”
Kelly praised Hart’s length and strength specifically, but he knows he still has plenty to work on. Persistent shoulder issues have plagued Hart since high school, but an offseason surgery has now allowed him to play without a brace. Hart hopes that freedom helps him in press coverage, a staple of new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s approach.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in press coverage, I feel comfortable tackling, defeating blocks and things of that sort,” he said. “I feel comfortable, I feel healthy and excited for what’s going to come next.”
Even when he was at receiver, Hart expected to work at defensive back next.