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Freshmen cornerbacks should help Irish offset losses at DB

When freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison was the toast of South Bend after recording five interceptions during a three-game span in November, The Athletic’s Pete Sampson dropped a bombshell that flew a bit under the radar. “Before the Ohio State opener, a source at Notre Dame indicated Morrison might be the best cornerback Notre Dame had signed in 10 years,” the longtime Irish beat writer wrote. While Notre Dame isn’t exactly known for its defensive back program, that’s still a pretty bold claim — especially since the source told Sampson this before Morrison played a single snap of collegiate football.

A year later, the only thing in question about that statement is just how far back it could hold up. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Notre Dame’s future. But its two young cornerbacks are pretty high up on the list. Fellow freshman Jaden Mickey wasn’t as productive as Morrison, who was downright dominant in the second half of the season. But Mickey, who like Morrison was a four-star recruit, has the talent to give the Irish a scary one-two punch at corner for the next few years.

The Notre Dame secondary has usually been led by its safeties. The Irish have quietly produced some excellent NFL talent at the position recently in Harrison Smith, Julian Love and Kyle Hamilton. Graduate student Brandon Joseph was the latest star to suit up at safety for the Irish, making an immediate impact at safety and returning punts after transferring from Northwestern. Cornerback Tariq Bracy, a solid presence in Notre Dame’s nickel defense, has used up his last year of eligibility. Joseph did have one left, but his departure was not a massive shock. Safety Houston Griffith also won’t be back.

The Irish secondary could have been hit harder, though. Graduate student safety DJ Brown and senior cornerback Cam Hart both elected to return for another year. Both, especially Hart, have been maligned by fans at times. But the two were key cogs of an Irish pass defense that was top-25 in passing yardage against (198 yards per game) and a solid but unspectacular 42nd in defensive passing efficiency.

The Irish were unable to secure another star safety with five-star recruit Peyton Bowen’s late decommitment. But it’s possible that the Irish secondary might still receive strong freshman contributions in 2023. Two of Notre Dame’s top nine commitments are cornerbacks, according to 247 Sports. Though playing time will be tough to find in a deep cornerback room, Christian Gray and Micah Bell will hope to become the next version of Morrison and Mickey. Both have track backgrounds, so the Irish hope their elite speed will translate to the college ranks.

Notre Dame’s recruiting class also includes a pair of four-star safeties in Adon Shuler and Ben Minich. The transfer portal, meanwhile, was a net neutral for the Irish secondary. Jayden Bellamy, a three-star recruit a year ago, left for Syracuse. Meanwhile, Notre Dame added graduate student Thomas Harper from Oklahoma State. Harper, who played between seven and 11 games in each of his four seasons with the Cowboys, had one interception and two passes defended plus 30 tackles a year ago. Sophomore Justin Walters could also see more action after appearing in seven games over the last two seasons.

There is definitely room for improvement for the Irish pass defense. Two of Notre Dame’s lowest points of the season — the double safety blitz against Ohio State and the regular season-ending dud against USC — involved breakdowns by the secondary. But with defensive coordinator Al Golden firmly back in the college landscape after coming to South Bend from the Bengals before last season and a strong pool of young Irish talent, there is definitely a path for the Irish DBs to hold their own in 2023 and beyond.

2023 Projected Depth Chart

Left Safety: DJ Brown, Justin Walters

Right Safety: Ramon Henderson, Thomas Harper

CB1: Benjamin Morrison, Jaden Mickey

CB2: Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis