Cornerback was one of Arizona’s weakest position groups under the previous coaching staff, so landing Notre Dame transfer Isaiah Rutherford was a coup for Jedd Fisch and company.
Rutherford was a high 4-star recruit coming out of Jesuit High School in 2019 and picked the Fighting Irish over offers from other elite programs like Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon.
The Carmichael, California native said he left Notre Dame to be closer to home and join a program that could offer more opportunities on the field. Rutherford appeared in three games in two seasons in South Bend.
“It’s not too much the playing time...just little stuff in practice that I felt like I deserved,” he said. “I’m getting everything I deserve here and I’m very happy with it.”
Rutherford has been lining up with Arizona’s No. 1 defense during preseason practice. Pairing him with Christian Roland-Wallace, one of the few bright spots last season, could give the Wildcats a formidable cornerback duo in Don Brown’s new blitz-heavy defense.
The two will be asked to play a lot of press coverage in this system and, if the Wildcats can generate the kind of quarterback pressure they hope, they should have plenty of chances to make plays on the ball. That’s music to any cornerback’s ears.
“I think we’re gonna do really well this year,” Rutherford said. “He’s a great press guy, he gets his hands on guys, I’m a great press guy too. And I think what he does well is tackles. He’s a really great tackler and takes on blocks, so I’m happy to be on the other side of him.”
Rutherford and Roland-Wallace, both sophomores, are the kind of long cornerbacks their position coach DeWayne Walker is used to mentoring. Roland-Wallace is an inch shorter than Rutherford, who’s listed at 6-foot-1.
“Their length is always something that you like in press corners but (they have) different skill sets,” Walker said. “You could maybe say Christian is a really good all-around player. You could say with Rutherford, wow that guy’s really good at the line of scrimmage. He’s a good cover guy, but he’s a young player so we’re working with him to become a better all-around corner.”
Walker likened Rutherford to NFL All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who Walker coached in 2016 when he was an assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rutherford responded with an “oh, wow!” when he heard that comparison.
“Obviously we got some work to do to get to that level, but from a length and speed standpoint I would say they’re pretty similar,” Walker said.
Rutherford has an NFL background too. His father Reynard was a running back at Cal in the 1990s and later signed with the San Francisco 49ers practice squad before playing for the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe.
Walker said Rutherford is a “sharp kid” who carries himself with a pro-like demeanor.
“He was really raised in that atmosphere so he understands what needs to be done in terms of respecting the game and and doing the things he needs to do to be successful,” Walker said.
Rutherford enrolled at Arizona in the spring and used the head start to learn the defense and get to know his teammates and new surroundings. He said the defensive backs are a tight-knit group.
“A bond like that going into camp will just make us play harder on Day 13 when we’re all tired,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford has formed a strong connection with his new coaches too. They were one of the main reasons he picked Arizona over other schools during the transfer process.
“The way they talked to me, it’s all real,” Rutherford said. “Everything about them is really genuine and they care and they know what they’re talking about. And I think what is really important too is their background. They have the history of being successful ... and here too we have the history of being successful, so I just felt like it was a great fit for me.”