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Notre Dame Football

Critical Competition at Corner this Spring

March 24, 2021

Notre Dame’s pass defense took a step back in 2020. After finishing in the top-three in yards per attempt for two straight seasons, they dropped all the way to 47th in 2020.

It didn’t help that they played three games against Clemson and Alabama and the pass rush slightly declining played a part as well. It can’t be denied that the Irish weren’t as good at cornerback as they have been, though. To get back to the level they played at before, they’ll have to be better at that spot.

It may be the most important position this spring outside of quarterback when it comes to development.

Clarence Lewis may show signs of being great this season starting this spring. Even if TaRiq Bracy looks like he has regained his confidence, it will be tough to project him this season until we see him back it up on Saturdays. It’s the other five corners on campus that could make or break Notre Dame getting back to where they want to be against the pass.

Cam Hart, Ramon Henderson, and Caleb Offord are the players returning on the roster. Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes are the early enrollees on campus. Out of that group, only Riley was a composite 4-star as a recruit.

That’s not to say that it is a group devoid of potential. There is raw talent there that could translate really well. Henderson had a 4-star grade from ISD and 247Sports. Hart, ranked as a 4-star by ESPN, and Barnes are two long athletes that profile well to play press man on the boundary. It will be on Mickens and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to bring that talent along to a place where their play exceeds their lack of experience.

The good news is that Mickens helped Lewis contribute right away as a true freshman and had similar success with Ahmad Gardner at Cincinnati in 2019. So the idea of Barnes or Riley making progress this spring and making an impact this fall isn’t out of the realm of possibility. That’s why how they develop this spring could be equally as important as what happens with Hart, Henderson, and Offord.

Notre Dame came into the spring of 2017 with similar questions at cornerback.

They had played three young corners the season before and there were flashes from Julian Love that made it seem like he was going to be a good player, but that was about the only thing that people were sure of.

There wasn’t enough there from Troy Pride or Donte Vaughn at the time to suggest they were going to be ready to play big roles. Nick Watkins and Shaun Crawford were both blue-chip recruits, but both were also coming off of major injuries and didn’t have a large enough sample size to show they could play at a high-level.

Add that on top of failing to land any corners in the 2017 recruiting cycle and things didn’t exactly project well that season.

Everything clicked into place, though. Watkins and Crawford were healthy. Love made a big leap to become an elite player and Troy Pride’s development came along to the point where he started by the end of that season.

The pass defense was ranked 86th in S&P+ and finished an equally atrocious 83rd in yards per attempt (7.5) in 2016. The numbers flipped in ‘17 with it jumping all the way to 7th(!) in S&P+ and 16th in YPA. How things played out at corner was one of the catalysts for that improvement.

It wasn’t nearly as bad with last year’s pass defense as it was in ‘16. The jump back to a top-five pass defense seems unrealistic, but going from 47th to top-20 should be achievable.

If Notre Dame has strong play at cornerback. That’s a big “if” right now, which is why this spring is going to be so critical in determining how much better the pass defense can be in 2021.

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