Corn Elder is a nice guy. He really is.
And yet he’s found that no one wants to go near him.
“The first few weeks he was like, ‘Coach, they’re not throwing my way, in practice they don’t throw my way,” cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said. “I told him, ‘You’re on an island. Don’t get comfortable.’”
Elder, who explored his NFL draft stock after last year, seems to have made a wise choice to return for his senior season.
After causing websites like Pro Football Focus to take notice of his play last year, he has been UM’s best overall player as a senior. Despite his small stature (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), NFL scouts are reportedly “raving” about him.
His coaches and teammates are, too.
“He’s always in position and he never takes a play off,” Rumph said. “I’m seeing his total preparation. When the game gets started, he turns into another person, just mentally locked in and ready to go. I saw that transition in him. I’m hoping some of that wears off on some of our other players as well.”
Here’s why Elder has been Miami’s most important player in 2016:
He’s really durable
He returned as the only UM cornerback with any meaningful experience after Artie Burns left early for the NFL draft and Tracy Howard graduated. Elder had a so-so spring. Since then, he has been a rock for a young Hurricanes defense besieged by injuries and preseason dismissals.
Through seven games, Elder has played 479 of Miami’s 539 defensive snaps. His only rest came Miami’s first three games, with the Hurricanes comfortably ahead in the final minutes. In conference play, he hasn’t come off the field.
The only other players to play more than 400 (on average, more than 57 per game) are safeties Jamal Carter (428) and Rayshawn Jenkins (410) and linebackers Shaq Quarterman (424) and Michael Pinckney (402). RJ McIntosh (385) leads defensive linemen.
“There’s nothing he doesn’t do well,” sophomore safety Jaquan Johnson said. “He’s fearless out there. I love playing with him. … He’s taught me how to be patient at the line, and really read what the receiver is doing. His toughness speaks for itself.”
He’s super versatile
He is no longer returning punts and kicks — remember, he had 321 return yards and two touchdowns last season — or resurrecting his basketball career, but Elder is shining in every role defensive coordinator Manny Diaz gives him.
Despite losing its last three games, Miami ranks 13th in yards per play allowed, 17th in points, 23rd in rushing yards per carry allowed and 42nd in opposing quarterback rating. Elder has been a major reason why.
He has been a lock-down field corner and was UM’s main nickel back until last week, when an injury to cornerback Sheldrick Redwine forced Elder to stay at corner in all situations. When used as a special teams gunner, he’s a tackling machine.
Elder has 32 tackles (3.5 for loss, 2.0 sacks), 1 interception and 7 pass break-ups. In 13 games last year, he made 41 tackles (4.0 for loss, 2.0 sacks), with 2 interceptions and 11 pass break-ups.
“He’s fun to watch,” coach Mark Richt said of Elder. “Very physical at the point of attack. A lot of college football is played on the perimeter. A lot of balls are being thrown out on the flat, and he’s taking on blocks and seeing them and making form tackles. In blitzes, he’s coming off the edge for sacks, getting TFLs in the run game. He’s covering kicks and punts. Just doing a super job.”
He produces when able
Elder, who rarely misses a tackle, doesn’t allow much in coverage.
According to stats compiled by Daniel Gould (who also tracks snap counts for us), Elder has surrendered 13 receptions on 26 downfield passes (i.e., not of the screen variety) thrown his way. Those receptions have totaled 132 yards and scored zero touchdowns.
According to Gould, Elder has also given up 23 yards after the catch, or 1.8 per reception against him. On eight of 13 catches, he has allowed zero.
Opposing quarterbacks are far more likely to test the corners opposite Elder: sophomore Redwine (15-for-28, 222 yards, 3 PBU) and senior Adrian Colbert (12-for-20, 178 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 PBU). Combined, they’ve played a little more (521 snaps) than Elder and allowed three times the yardage. Opposing quarterbacks, when throwing at Elder, have an 84.9 rating. Redwine and Colbert: 135.8.
Last week at Virginia Tech, ESPN play-by-play man Dave Flemming billed Elder as “one of the best cover men in the ACC, maybe in the country.” Analyst Jesse Palmer agreed: “I think he’s the complete cornerback. He’s a guy who has tremendous speed. He’s about a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash.”
He used that speed to guard All-ACC candidate Isaiah Ford all night. Ford made four catches for 46 yards; he averaged 6.4 and 91.8 coming in.
Elder, who ended Miami’s first defensive series of the season (against Florida A&M) with a diving interception, shut down Georgia Tech’s best receiver, Ricky Jeune (2-for-13), from whom he ripped away a would-be touchdown in the fourth quarter in that game.
Playing all over the field against Florida State, Elder helped neutralize Travis Rudolph (two catches for 17 yards), who was averaging 4-for-58 and had a 13-for-238 performance last week against Wake Forest.
How? By doing things like this:
He also used that speed to chase down FSU star Dalvin Cook after a 54-yard gain, saving a touchdown in the first half. Johnson ended the drive with an interception, keeping points off the board.
Against North Carolina, Elder broke up a pass in the end zone and finished with a career-high 14 tackles (2.5 for loss) while covering several of UNC’s talented receivers. Ryan Switzer can attest to how quickly Elder sniffs out plays and finishes with authority:
Elder, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, isn’t a big talker and typically undersells his playmaking ability.
“You can’t try to be a hero,” he said. “You’ve just do what coach calls and the defense will work itself out.”
If Elder is involved, it usually does.