Corn Elder made it out to a couple of basketball practices in January when he realized he wanted to focus on football.
“It was pretty difficult for me to choose,” Elder, a two-sport star in high school, said last month on football media day.
If Saturday night’s season-opening performance was any indication, the 5-10, 183-pound junior from The Ensworth School in Nashville, Tenn., made a smart decision.
He sparked the Hurricanes defense with a 12-yard sack on the third play from scrimmage and then electrified the crowd twice with punt returns for touchdowns in the second quarter. The first punt return — which measured 70 yards —- didn’t count because teammate Herb Waters waved off the return before Elder scooped up a bouncing ball, according to officials.
“I was just thinking I hope I get a chance to bring another one back,” Elder said.
He did. Elder took that one back 72 yards with 1:37 left in the first half and put the Hurricanes up 31-0 at the half.
“He’s so laterally quick,” UM coach Al Golden said. “He and Braxton [Berrios] were No. 1 and No. 2 coming in [on punt return], and he did a great job with the football. Corn is that kind of kid. There’s not much that he can’t do, in terms of what you ask him to do. I thought he read the [punts] really well, and he hit [the hole] with a lot of courage and that’s what made it happen.”
Elder, a four-star recruit who was ranked the nation’s seventh-best running back by Rivals.com coming out of high school, moved to cornerback the first day he stepped on campus in Coral Gables.
He’s spent the last two seasons learning the position, getting on the field for the most part in nickel-and-dime situations behind veterans. This season, though, his role is expanding. Although he didn’t start Saturday (junior Artie Burns and senior Tracy Howard did), defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio said he considers Elder one of three starters at cornerback.
His sack on Bethune-Cookman’s opening drive was one of a handful of times he and other defensive backs blitzed on Saturday. The Hurricanes ranked 68th last season in sacks (2.08 per game) and 105th in tackles for loss (4.92), two areas Golden and D’Onofrio have both stressed need to improve.
Elder had two tackles for loss Saturday and a pass breakup. Last year, he played in 13 games, made one start and had 34 tackles, three for loss, two fumble recoveries and four pass breakups.
Elder said he spent most of his off-season studying tape of Pro Bowl cornerback Darrell Revis.
“It’s definitely different,” Elder said toward the end of training camp of his comfort level on defense. “I feel like I’m a lot better and I feel like the team is a lot better. I know the defense more. I’m trying to get better every day.
“We all know the defense pretty well. We’re all out there having fun. When someone messes up we hold each other accountable. Last year, we’d mess up and we didn’t know what we did. Now, we mess up and we’re not afraid to take the blame and correct it.”
Defense isn’t the only area Elder is going to be able to help the Hurricanes this season.
Sophomore Berrios, who earned the starting job on punt returns out of camp, went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury in the first quarter Saturday.
Elder replaced Berrios and called for a fair catch on his first punt return. The next two times Elder touched the ball on punt returns, he found the end zone.
He did that a lot in high school. Known for his speed and elusiveness, Elder finished his prep career with 6,351 yards rushing, 84 touchdowns and three consecutive state titles. He also led his school to back-to-back state basketball titles.
Saturday, had his teammate not waved his hands before Elder scooped up the ball and returned it 70 yards for a score, Elder would have become the first Hurricane to return two punts for a touchdown in the same game since Devin Hester did it Sept. 18, 2004 against Louisiana Tech.
“We spent the whole week planning for the punt return and the guys just opened the hole for me,” Elder said. “I just like having the ball in my hands.”