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Notre Dame Football

Is Mike Mickens Ready to be Notre Dame’s Future DC?

October 31, 2023
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Once again, Notre Dame owns one of the top defenses in college football. 

The Fighting Irish limits opponents to 4.45 yards per play (10th out of 133 FBS programs) and 15.3 points per game (10th). ESPN’s SP+ rates the defense as the eighth most efficient unit in college football. 

Given the improvements, defensive coordinator Al Golden should have plenty of suitors if he is, in fact, interested in pursuing the same position in the NFL or taking another shot at becoming a head college football coach. 

Cornerbacks coach and pass game coordinator Mike Mickens clearly has the potential to replace Golden should Notre Dame’s current defensive coordinator depart after the season.

“As far as the schematics, he has a brilliant mind,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “They’re all in that defensive room collaborative on the game plan, but I firmly believe Mike Mickens is ready to be a defensive coordinator.”

The most significant attribute on Mickens’ resume is as Notre Dame’s pass game coordinator, a promotion he received this past offseason. This also happens to be the strength of the defense. 

The pass defense ranks third in opponent pass efficiency and offensive production allowed, giving up 158.6 yards per game. That’s occurred despite Notre Dame facing a host of talented and experienced quarterbacks, including reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams.

In 2022, the Irish ranked 41st and 23rd in the same defensive categories while giving up 198.0 pass yards per game.

“I absolutely think Mike Mickens is ready to be a defensive coordinator,” Freeman said. “That’s why we gave him the passing game coordinator title during the offseason. He is a tremendous football coach schematically and in the fundamentals of playing the cornerback position.”

It helps that he’s also cultivated what might be the most talented collection of cornerbacks in the nation.

Sophomore Ben Morrison was named a preseason second-team All-American after recording six interceptions as a freshman. 

He’s defended eight passes this season, including two interceptions, and held OSU’s Marvin Harrison Jr. to three catches and 35 yards. The Buckeye wideout has recorded at least six receptions, over 100 yards, and a touchdown in the four games since. 

A few analysts even believe Morrison would be a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2024 if he were eligible. 

Mickens didn’t recruit Cam Hart, but he’s overseen the former three-star prospect’s transition from wide receiver to a three-year starter at cornerback and likely day 2 draft pick. 

Of course, fans recently saw that underclassmen Jaden Mickey and Christian Grey are already prepared for bigger defensive roles. 

On Saturday, both played more than 30 snaps in a 58-7 win over Pitt, each recording an interception while giving up a combined four receptions for 57 yards on 11 targets.

“It’s been a blessing having coach Mickens as a coach,” Mickey said in August. “He believes in all of us. He’s been great developing us and letting us do what we know how to do and also adding things to our game, adding things to our toolbox to ensure we do it the right way.” 

His pedigree for identifying talent extends back to his time at Cincinnati, where he unearthed Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, the 144th-rated cornerback prospect in the class of 2018. 

Flash forward to today, Gardner is already considered one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL less than two seasons into his professional career.

Last year, he was named First-Team All-Pro and the NFL Rookie of the Year.

“One of the greatest things he does is the way he evaluates,” Freeman said. “I’ve said this story before, but at Cincinnati, I wasn’t standing on the table for Sauce Gardner when we started recruiting him. Mickens did. Mickens said this is the guy that we need here. We knew right away when he got to campus that he was special.”

It’s unclear how his keen eye for talent translates to linebacker or defensive end, but the culture he’s established is a major part of the development process for anyone that’s around him. 

“I wanted the room to take after me,” Mickens said in August. “When we go on the field, we want to compete in everything we do. Changing that mindset and just getting guys that want to be the best version of themselves. That’s what I think this room is.”

That same mentality could translate to the entire defense.

It’s no wonder that Freeman is willing to stand on a table and proclaim that Mickens is ready to become a defensive coordinator. The pass defense has excelled with his guidance, and he can identify, recruit and develop the best players in the country. 

Now, one question remains: will he garner the promotion he’s earned at Notre Dame or elsewhere?

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