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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, October 09, 2019 1:00 am

Trojans' WR trio tall task for Irish

Kelly calls them best they'll face this year

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame vs. USC

Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Records: Notre Dame (4-1), USC (3-2)

TV: NBC

Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM

SOUTH BEND – Troy Pride Jr. is not afraid of a challenge. 

The Notre Dame cornerback will face one of his most difficult tests of the season Saturday when he and the rest of the No. 9 Irish's defensive backfield take on USC and it's three-headed wide receiver monster of Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown. The three combined for 305 yards on 29 catches in the 2018 Trojans-Irish matchup and that was when All-American cornerback Julian Love patrolled the Notre Dame secondary.

Pride isn't intimidated by the speed and strength the Trojans bring on the outside. He runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash in his own right and he's not about to back down to anyone.

“I love challenges,” Pride said. “I love to rise to the opportunity, rise to the occasion and it's just fun, playing football. You're still playing football so regardless of what everybody says about (the receivers), we're just lining the ball up and playing with a group of guys that loves playing football.”

The three USC receivers have had a monster start to the season, even though the Trojans are just 3-2 and are playing with a true freshman quarterback in Kedon Slovis. Pittman, Vaughns and St. Brown, brother of former Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, have already combined for 90 catches for 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns.

All three have impressed coach Brian Kelly as he's watched film on the Trojans. The coach called those three “the best wide receiving corps that we'll see all year without question.”

“Just a very, very talented group, and they complement each other extremely well,” Kelly said. “Pittman is explosive. Gets down the field, big-play receiver, catches everything that's thrown his way. Vaughns obviously has got great length (6-foot-2). It's a matchup issue. And then St. Brown in the slot is physical, competitive, does all the tough jobs as well.”

The Irish will have to deal with those three while missing one of their top cornerbacks in fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford, who dislocated his elbow against Virginia and is out two to three more weeks. In his place will be 5-10, 170-pound sophomore TaRiq Bracy, who played nearly the entire game against Bowling Green, breaking up two passes and forcing a fumble. 

Despite that performance, he's still a question mark opposite Pride going into the battle for the Shillelagh Trophy. Safety Alohi Gilman would have to contain any mistakes the corners make in front of him, but he has faith in his younger teammate.

“He's done a great job,” Gilman said of Bracy. “He's been able to get more confident out there, he's been able to just execute the plan a little better, focus on the small details and just play to his strengths. 

“I don't think (his performance) is a surprise. A lot of people know the talent that he has. Some people may not see it, but he has a lot of talent.”

Behind Pride and Bracy, the Irish can call on senior Donte Vaughn, but after that the depth chart skips down to true freshman K.J. Wallace and also includes converted wide receiver Cam Hart.

In other words, Pride and Bracy have a challenge ahead.

dsinn@jg.net