2021 Position Previews: Cornerback
Observer Sports Staff | Thursday, March 18, 2021
In Mike Mickens’ first year as Notre Dame cornerbacks coach, his unit was widely regarded as the Irish’s Achilles’ heel and was undeniably exposed by the elite perimeter talent of Clemson and Alabama in the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl, respectively. What can incoming defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who followed Mickens from Cincinnati a year later, expect from his relatively young and inexperienced group of defensive backs in 2021?
Position Group: Cornerback
2021 Depth Chart: senior TaRiq Bracy; rising junior Cam Hart; sophomores Clarence Lewis, Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord; incoming first-years Philip Riley, Ryan Barnes and Chance Tucker
McCloud arrived as a grad transfer from N.C. State in 2020 and almost immediately became the clear leader for a cornerback group substantially lacking experience. As Notre Dame’s No. 1 boundary corner, McCloud led the Irish with eight pass breakups and was tied for first on the team in interceptions with one (at Pitt), tied for second in fumble recoveries with two and fifth in tackles with 33. The Rock Hill, South Carolina, native was voted to the All-ACC Third Team and AP All-ACC Second Team. Though he could have taken advantage of the blanket waiver of eligibility implemented by the NCAA for the 2020 season, McCloud declared for the NFL Draft following Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to Alabama in the Rose Bowl. He was named defensive MVP of the Hula Bowl, a January collegiate all-star game played in Hawaii, where he made two interceptions.
After featuring in just three games during two years in South Bend, Rutherford announced he was entering the transfer portal on Jan. 3 and subsequently committed to Arizona four days later. He and fellow class of 2019 signee John Olmstead were the only non-graduate transfers to leave the Irish program. The consensus four-star recruit per 247sports, ESPN and Rivals also received offers out of high school from college football heavyweights Alabama and Oklahoma, but the product of Sacramento’s Jesuit High School found himself stuck behind fellow sophomore Cam Hart and freshman Clarence Lewis on the depth chart. After not playing his first year, Rutherford only saw action on special teams or mop-up duty in wins against USF, Pitt and Syracuse. Rutherford should not be a huge loss for the Irish, but he will look to play more in Tucson for a Wildcat team that went 0-5 in 2020 and is thin at corner.
Bracy was named to the Pro Football Focus Team of the Week after not allowing any receiving yards in Notre Dame’s season-opening victory vs. Duke and led the Irish in tackles in wins over Florida State and Louisville. However, the rising senior from Milpitas, California, lost his starting spot to Lewis after struggling early in the late November win against then-No. 19 North Carolina. Besides Lewis, Bracy is the only returning corner to have started a game for the Irish. In 2019, Bracy led the Irish with seven pass breakups, was tied for the team-high in forced fumbles with two and was tied for ninth on the team with 34 tackles.
ESPN’s No. 112 cornerback nationally in the class of 2020 belied his modest three-star status with a breakout campaign, supplanting Bracy as the starting field corner and earning a spot on The Athletic’s Freshman All-America Second Team. In the regular-season finale against Syracuse, Lewis became the first Irish player to make 12 tackles in a single game since Julian Love vs. USC in 2018. Lewis also forced a fumble against the Orange and was named ACC Defensive Back of the Week. Despite starting five fewer games than McCloud, the rising sophomore from Edison, New Jersey, finished with seven pass breakups — just one less than McCloud — and tied the senior for fifth on the team in tackles with 33.
Despite not starting in any of his nine appearances in 2020, the converted wide receiver from Baltimore is currently projected by NDInsider to fill McCloud’s shoes as Notre Dame’s starting boundary corner this season. The Irish will hope the combination of Hart’s raw athleticism — he posted a 4.70-second 40-yard dash and a 37.5-inch vertical jump out of high school, according to ESPN — and the experience of backing up McCloud translates to success against his toughest assignments. The rising junior and No. 32-ranked wideout in the 2019 class, per ESPN, recorded two pass breakups and three tackles last fall.
Ramon Henderson/Caleb Offord
Henderson, 247sports’ No. 32 cornerback nationally, saw action in five games during his freshman campaign. The product of Liberty High School in Bakersfield, California, is projected by NDInsider to be Hart’s primary backup at boundary corner in 2021.
Offord, who only featured in two games as a first-year, will likely aim to be the second option off the bench (behind Bracy) at the field cornerback position. The Southhaven, Mississippi, native was the No. 37 cornerback in the country and No. 11 player from Mississippi in the 2020 class, according to Rivals.
Riley de-committed from Notre Dame for USC in September, only to flip back to the Irish less than two months later. The Riverview, Florida, native’s polished technique, physicality at the line of scrimmage and comfort covering in both man and zone likely make him Notre Dame’s most promising cover corner in the incoming class. The consensus top-25 cornerback nationally finished his senior high school season with 24 tackles and two interceptions, as well as both a punt and kick return for a touchdown. Brandon Huffman, 247sports national recruiting editor, projects Riley will be an eventual day-three NFL Draft pick.
The No. 38 cornerback nationally and No. 29 player in California, per ESPN, might have the highest ceiling of all three incoming D-backs. The former track star from Encino, Calififornia, is already adding muscle to complement his speed. Tucker, who will turn 18 during August camp, has gained 20 pounds — from 165 to 185 — since signing for the Irish in December. Tucker’s senior football season is officially scheduled to begin next Saturday after being postponed in the fall, according to NDInsider. In 2019, Tucker made three interceptions, including one pick-six, and also tallied 58 tackles and 10 pass breakups for Crespi Carmelite High School.
In addition to Tucker, Barnes could be another counterpoint to those who dismiss the potential of three-star prospects. The No. 35 cornerback in the country, per 247sports, is not a pure speedster, but his 6-foot-2 frame, relative agility and excellent instincts help explain an impressive offer list that included Clemson, LSU and Georgia. Barnes, who intends to major in Biology, returned two interceptions for touchdowns and deflected 15 passes during his junior year at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Greg McKenna — Sports Writer
Last year’s D-back group was serviceable enough during the 2020 regular season, finishing fourth in the ACC in yards allowed per game. Of course, the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl brutally showed that “serviceable” in a mediocre conference equates to a fatal weakness among college football’s elite.
I don’t expect this unit to take a giant leap forward in 2021, but I am cautiously optimistic that Irish fans won’t see a regression. It is scary to think what the Irish would have done at the position last season if they had not secured the transfer of McCloud. Another graduate transfer to plug the massive hole in production he leaves behind would likely ease Notre Dame fans’ nerves, but I think the continued development of Lewis and Hart could potentially pick up the slack.
Were Lewis (who, again, started as a true first-year) and his comrades taken to school by Devonta Smith? Yes, of course, but who wasn’t? The Heisman winner went for 85 more yards and the same number of touchdowns (three) in just the first half of the National Championship vs. Ohio State than he did against the Irish secondary. No, this cornerback group does not have an all-American like Julian Love in 2018, but the gap between this unit and the best defensive back groups in college football is not astronomical.
I expect Kedon Slovis and USC to be this unit’s biggest test, even though the Trojans lose Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyler Vaughns. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s cornerback group is young. Blown coverages will happen and could be costly. However, I expect this unit to give the Irish a chance to win every game on a relatively easy regular-season schedule in 2021. If Notre Dame can not manage a third undefeated regular season in four years, I think the Irish fans’ fingers will be collectively pointed at the other side of the ball.
Mannion McGinley — Sports Writer
With three new names for the cornerback roster, there should be plenty of room for improvement for the squad. The question is: improvement from what status? Losing McCloud could be a major loss but with Bracy and Lewis at the helm and their accolades, the group should be able to shape up well and step up to the plate.