Notre Dame enters the 2021 offseason with major questions at the cornerback position, and they go beyond simply losing veteran Nick McCloud. How will the cornerback position be used under new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, and how will that impact who steps into the lineup at cornerback, both outside and in the slot.
WHAT WAS LOST
McCloud was a steadying force for Notre Dame this season. He was a veteran player that had a lot of experience playing in the ACC. What he lacked in elite physical tools and spectacular skills he made up for with intelligence, sound technique and ball skills.
McCloud earned second-team All-ACC honors from the Associated Press and third-team All-ACC honors from the league after registering 33 tackles, a team-leading eight pass breakups and an interception.
The NC State transfer handled the boundary position for Notre Dame this past season, and his leadership was valuable for an otherwise young position group.
Notre Dame has no shortage of bodies returning at cornerback, but experience and proven coverage ability is a significant concern. This is especially true of Freeman is going to continue running the high volume of man coverage he's used the last two seasons.
At Cincinnati, the film showed Freeman using primarily a left-right cornerback alignment as opposed to the field-boundary position we saw from Notre Dame. He could certainly change that and go field-boundary, but in an era of up-tempo offenses, and with Notre Dame's primary rival (USC) and with the top teams in the country (Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson) going with more tempo, it would make sense for Freeman to continue using his left-right alignment.
That decision will impact how the cornerbacks are used.
Rising sophomore Clarence Lewis is likely to return as a starter, assuming he continues making natural growth as a player heading into his second season.
After that the biggest question mark is what kind of growth do we see from senior TaRiq Bracy, both as a player and from a confidence standpoint. Bracy was Notre Dame's best cover player last season when his confidence was correct, and he showed impressive cover skills as a freshman (2018) and sophomore.
The issue for Bracy throughout his career has been confidence and consistency. When he's on his game he's outstanding, but when he's not he gets beat with ease, which is due mainly to his lack of size. Bracy must be on top of his game to thrive, and if Freeman and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens help the veteran corner regain his confidence and be more consistent from a technique standpoint it would go a very, very long way towards solidifying the cornerback position.
Now, the question is will Bracy be used more as an outside receiver or a slot cornerback. Freeman likes to use a lot of three cornerback alignments on third down and against pass-heavy teams, so finding a slot corner is important.
Another wildcard at cornerback is rising junior Cam Hart, who could benefit greatly from the additional eligibility granted to all players in 2020. Although Hart is going into his junior year of college, he's technically still going to be a redshirt freshman eligibility wise.
That is important for Hart because he spent much of his freshman season at wide receiver, and he's still very much learning the cornerback position, which makes that additional season invaluable for him.
Now we need to see what kind of growth Hart can make as a player in his second full season at cornerback. Mickens has had great success with long corners at Bowling Green (Nick Johnson), Cincinnati (Ahmad Gardner) and Notre Dame (McCloud). No cornerback on the roster has Hart's size and length, and he's also an impressive athlete.
This spring we'll need to see if his technique and feel for the position in coverage can match his raw tools. A breakout offseason from Hart would be a major, major boost for the cornerback position. The same is true for rising sophomore Ramon Henderson, who is extremely fast and long, but he's a very raw prospect.
One benefit for the cornerbacks compared to the rest of the defense is that Mickens coached with Freeman for two seasons, so the transition for him into a "new" defense will be seamless.
Notre Dame welcomes four freshmen to the roster in 2021, and the two highest-ranked corners on my board - Ryan Barnes and Philip Riley Jr. - will both be early enrollees, which is huge for the the depth chart.
Adding Barnes and Riley to the competition serves two important purposes. For them it allows for a jump start on the academic aspects needed to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame. It also gives them a jump start on learning the defense and picking up the necessary technique needed to thrive in the defense.
Barnes needs it even more after missing his senior season due to Maryland canceling the fall football season.
Barnes has exceptional length, and he's a better athlete than often given credit for. He's smooth, fluid and moves with ease. He's also a smart player and a willing tackler, but he is thin and needs to add weight room strength. Barnes is the ideal "big corner" in Freeman's defense.
"Barnes has the size, tackling potential and ball skills to thrive in the boundary position. His athleticism and instincts could also thrive at the field position, and that flexibility only adds to his value in this class."
That versatility is what you want and need in a cornerback that plays left-right and not field-boundary.
Riley is a physically imposing defender that has skills that could fit at outside cornerback, in the slot or at safety. He is physically and mentally ready to play as a freshman, and he played against outstanding competition in high school.
Riley getting on campus early allows the staff to get an early look at his skill set, which should allow them to find the spot that gives him the earliest chance to get on the field.
I would not be the least bit surprised if both Barnes and Riley are able to find their way onto the field in 2021. If they don't, the odds are that means the veterans stepped up in a big way and not that they aren't ready.
Notre Dame also signed Chance Tucker and JoJo Johnson at cornerback, so even more talented reinforcements will arrive in the fall. While cornerback is a major question mark right now, if Mickens is the coach I think he is it could end up being a strength before the 2021 season is over.
1. How will Freeman use the cornerbacks - Will we see field/boundary or left/right with the cornerbacks this spring? If Freeman goes more left/right the need for a true "boundary" player lessens, which gives the defense more flexibility.
2. Can Mickens and Freeman help Bracy restore his confidence - Getting Bracy back on track must be a focal point of the defensive staff this spring. It's up to Bracy to ultimately make it happen, but the staff needs to do what it can to get him on track. If he can be his best self on a consistent basis he'll be a great fit for the new defensive scheme.
3. Is Cam Hart ready to make a big jump - Like Bracy, Hart's emergence would go a long way towards shoring up the depth chart. Will he turn his talent into production? We'll see, and if he does the cornerback depth chart looks a lot better.
4. What kind of impact will the freshmen make - Barnes and Riley are very talented, and if they are quick study's they'll be hard to keep off the field.
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