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Notre Dame Spring Preview: Cornerback and Nickel

Breaking down the Notre Dame cornerback and nickel position heading into the 2024 spring

It wasn't that long ago that cornerback was arguably the weakest position on the Notre Dame defense. Things have certainly changed in a hurry since Mike Mickens arrived. Now the longest tenured coach on the staff, Mickens has built Notre Dame's cornerback room into one of the best in the nation, and that should continue despite the loss of Cam Hart, who was brilliant for the Irish this season.

Notre Dame was a program that built a reputation in the late 1980s and early 1990s for developing big time cornerbacks. From 1991 to 1995, Notre Dame produced two first round picks, a second round pick and a third round pick at the cornerback position. That doesn't include first round pick Jeff Burris, who played cornerback later in his career after starting his career at cornerback.

Notre Dame hasn't produced a first or second round pick at cornerback since Bobby Taylor back in 1995, but that could change in the very near future thanks to what Mickens has established. In 2024 he'll need to prove he can build on that foundation by helping to get his star to another level and developing his group of talented but unproven younger players.


2024 Spring Depth Chart - Cornerback-Nickel


Jordan Clark - 50 tackles, 9 break ups, 1.5 TFL
Benjamin Morrison - 31 tackles, 10 break ups, 3 interceptions, 3.5 TFL
Christian Gray - 11 tackles, 2 break ups, 1 interception
Jaden Mickey - 11 tackles, 2 break ups, 1 interception (1 TD)
Clarence Lewis - 9 tackles, 3 break ups, 1 interception (1 TD)
Chance Tucker - 3 tackles
Micah Bell - 1 tackle, 1 TFL

Despite having one of the nation's best duos at cornerback last season with Benjamin Morrison and Hart, Notre Dame still found a way to get plenty of snaps for talented young players Christian Gray and Jaden Mickey, and Clarence Lewis played a good number of snaps in the nickel position.


Expectations were high for Benjamin Morrison in 2023, and while he didn't quite play to All-American levels, he was still an outstanding defender for the Irish. As a sophomore he had some young player moments, and consistency with his technique is something he'll need to continue working on. But he was still one of the best pure cover players in college football, and he was at his best in the biggest moments. Just ask Marvin Harrison Jr.

The question for Morrison for 2024 is can he take his game to another level, or has he already reached his peak as a player. Let's be honest, if Morrison simply repeats his 2023 performance he'll once again be one of the top cover players in college football and Notre Dame will have an outstanding cover player in the boundary. 

But what if Morrison gets better? What if he gets stronger, which helps him be more effective at the line and when battling against bigger receivers downfield? What if his tackling improves? What if his technique gets even better and he is more consistent and less grabby? What if he is even more productive on the ball than he was his first two seasons, during which he racked up 14 pass break ups and 9 interceptions.

If Morrison improves, even just normal sophomore to junior improvement, he'll have a chance to battle players like Will Johnson (Michigan) and Denzel Burke (Ohio State) for recognition as the best cornerback in all of college football. Getting tested this spring by an improved wide receiver room should help him, and give us our first look at whether or not he has taken his game to another level.


With Hart gone there will be a battle for the field cornerback position during the spring. Make no mistake, both Christian Gray and Jaden Mickey are going to be key players for the Irish in 2024, but whether or not one player dominates the reps and the other is the rotation player, or they both play a similar amount will be determined by how the battle for the position goes, and it begins this spring.

Mickey is the more experienced player, and he had a quality sophomore season. He played over 250 snaps last season (PFF) and allowed just nine completions all season, holding opponents to just a 45% completion rate. Mickey is a physical cornerback that has a chance to be a top notch perimeter run defender. 

If Mickey wants to win the starting job he'll need to improve in man coverage. He was solid last season, but he was still vulnerable to big plays. Mickey is an aggressive player and can be vulnerable to double moves. If he can be more patient and play under control he'll handle coverage even better than he did last season.

Gray was outstanding as a rookie for the Irish. He earned 198 snaps as a freshman and was excellent in coverage. Gray gave up just seven completions on 19 targets, holding opponents to a 36.8% completion rate, which ranked 13th among all cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps last season. When Morrison and Hart were injured against Pitt it, Gray was thrust into the rotation as basically a starter. The Panthers targeted him 7 times, but Gray gave up just 2 catches. He played 62 total snaps in season-ending wins over Stanford and Oregon State, and Gray gave up just 1 completion on 7 targets in those games.

Morrison and Gray have very similar body types, athletic skills and their game is very, very similar, but Gray is even faster. If he can establish himself as the clear best player at the field position it will give Notre Dame a chance to have two pure man coverage players on the outside at cornerback.

Losing a player like Hart is never easy to deal with, but having both Gray and Mickey coming back helps Notre Dame reload. Don't be surprised if Gray is a player that comes out of spring as a breakout player opposite Morrison.

Veteran Chance Tucker provides quality depth behind this duo, and if he can be better playing the ball this spring he could be a factor in the rotation.


The nickel position has been a strength for Notre Dame the last two seasons, with TaRiq Bracy locking it down in 2022 and transfer Thomas Harper thriving in that role in 2023. Getting strong play from the nickel is essential for the Irish defense to be at its best. Harper had more snaps last season than starting Rover Jack Kiser, which shows how much the Irish like to play a five defensive back look.

Bracy and Harper were both under-appreciated parts of the defense, and filling Harper's shoes won't be easy. There are three players battling for the job, and Arizona State transfer Jordan Clark enters the spring in pole position. Clark comes with a ton of experience, having made 139 career tackles, broken up 17 passes and intercepted three more during his career with the Sun Devils.

Clark played a ton in the slot the last two seasons, and while he wasn't as effective as Harper from a coverage standpoint, he was more productive on the ball. While Harper had just 3 pass break ups, Clark had 9. It will be interesting to see how much his game improves with Notre Dame. Clark will have a much better supporting cast around him in the secondary, and he'll play with a much better pass rush. 

Veteran Clarence Lewis was a starting cornerback for Notre Dame's 2020 playoff team and he started much of the 2021 season as well. The fact he's now a backup cornerback and nickel shows how much Notre Dame has improved its cornerback and nickel room in recent seasons. Lewis can play both cornerbacks for Notre Dame, and he played a lot of slot snaps last season. He'll have a chance to push for action in the slot this spring, but don't be surprised if he ends up getting more action in the boundary.

The reason I predict that Lewis plays more outside is the presence of sophomore Micah Bell. One of the top signees in the 2023 class, Bell goes into the spring with a chance to work himself into the rotation. He is without question the fastest player on the Irish defense, but Bell is still a work in progress from a technical standpoint, and he's still learning the nuances of playing defense. According to sources, Bell finished the season well, and now he enters spring with a chance to push himself into the rotation.

If Bell fails to step up you'll see Lewis get more time in the slot. If Bell has a strong spring it will allow Notre Dame to keep Lewis outside, and even allow the staff to consider moving him to safety in certain situations. If Bell breaks out it would also give Notre Dame a player with the kind of elite speed to matchup against teams with more dynamic pass catchers. 

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Irish Breakdown Content

2024 Scholarship Chart
2023 Football Schedule

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2024 Commit Rankings - Offense
2024 Commit Rankings - Defense

2024 Recruiting Class Grades - Offense
2024 Recruiting Class Grades - Defense


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