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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

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Notre Dame topples BYU in Bible Brawl: 5 key moments

Allegiant Stadium was electric and energy-filled tonight from both BYU and Notre Dame as 62,742 fans witnessed a close match of college football in the 2022 Shamrock Series. Ultimately, the Irish saw victory over the Cougars, 28-20. They never lost the lead, but the win was not always certain. It would not be a Notre Dame game without a borderline heart attack in the second half, and this game certainly fit the bill. The Irish offense did their job consistently well, except in the red zone where Tommy Rees’ questionable play-calling left points off the board. The defense fell short in the second half and cost the team a substantial lead, but the Irish were able to pull it together and perform when it mattered most. Notre Dame showed what they could do on offense — something Irish fans have been waiting to see. The defense was frustratingly inconsistent but created the 4th down stop when needed.

A TaRiq Bracy interception starts things off right for the Irish

Notre Dame won the toss and deferred to the second half, but BYU certainly did not have the ball long. Right out of the gate on first-and-10, Irish graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy picked off a massively underthrown ball by Cougar’s quarterback Jaren Hall. BYU has seemingly owned the turnover battle this season, but Bracy humbled them early in the game. 

Bracy’s turnover marks the Irish’s first interception of the season and a big moment for the Irish defense. This allowed the Irish to gain possession and make it 3-0 with a field goal. Bracy apparently injured his hamstring at the end of the game and his status for next week is unknown at this point, but he significantly contributed tonight.

Michael Mayer leads Irish offense in record-breaking performance 

“Drew Pyne’s pass complete to Michael Mayer” echoed repeatedly this Saturday night in Allegiant Stadium. Consistently present to receive junior quarterback Pyne’s passes,  Mayer helped the Irish rack up big yardage throughout the entire game and stole the show in Vegas.  

In the second quarter, Mayer’s sixth catch of the game — a touchdown and the 141st reception of his career — allowed him to surpass former Irish All-American Tyler Eifert atop Notre Dame’s career reception list for tight ends. This momentous moment for Mayer was certainly well deserved Saturday night as he racked up 118 yards and amassed two touchdowns. Mayer was a key component of the Irish’s successful performance tonight.

Jayden Thomas’ stellar 30 yd touchdown catch grants Irish steady lead

Cheers erupted at the end of the second quarter as sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas received a 30-yard pass from Pyne and ran for an Irish touchdown. This was the first touchdown of the Georgia native’s career and helped the Irish gain a steady lead against the Cougars. The spiral by Pyne and stellar catch by Thomas in the final minute of the quarter certainly made this one of the top plays of the game. With the score at 18-6, the Irish were sitting in a comfortable spot heading into the second half. That is, until the Cougars had something to say about it.

A sheer struggle from the Notre Dame defense in the second half allows BYU back in the game 

Though Notre Dame’s offense has typically been characterized as the weaker link this season, the defense almost cost the Irish their lead. The Cougars came out of the gate hot in the second half, and the Irish defense lacked the momentum to deal with this. The defense performed decently in the first half, only letting in one touchdown for the Cougars in an otherwise solid performance. An interception by Bracy had things looking bright, but this quickly shifted around in the second half. 

Notre Dame’s poor tackling performance and lack of communication by the secondary allowed BYU to get back into the game after trailing by double digits. Giving up chunk plays in the second half, a trend that has consistently repeated itself this season, allowed BYU to rally.  What should have been a 3-and-out for the Notre Dame defense turned into an 87-yard, 10-play scoring drive for BYU. As the momentum shifted,  BYU fans got louder, and the Irish defense sank lower. Luckily, the Notre Dame defense had a huge 4th-down stop to save the day and secure the Irish victory. 

Pynes’s play continues to develop consistency and effectiveness

Tommy Rees will surely be more content this week after quarterback Drew Pyne continued to build upon the consistency he began showing during his first start against Cal and expanded upon in the Irish’s matchup against UNC. Pyne threw for 262 yards with three touchdowns and was an efficient 22-28 with only one interception, which was tipped at the line.  He spread the ball around to seven different Irish receivers and remained cool and confident under pressure.

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TaRiq Bracy, Rylie Mills prepared to lead Irish defense this season

Although the Irish came up short in last week’s season-opening loss in Columbus, there were plenty of positive takeaways, especially on the defensive side of the football.

The Irish secondary held a potent Ohio State offense to 223 passing yards, compared to the Buckeyes’ 683 passing yards against Utah in last season’s Rose Bowl.

One of the leaders who emerged on Saturday night was graduate student cornerback TaRiq Bracy, who finished the game with four tackles — three of which were solo.

Head coach Marcus Freeman acknowledged that Bracy has always been talented but has become more consistent as he matured as a football player.

“From the minute I got here, he was talented. There was no question to how talented TaRiq Bracy is,” Freeman said. “But what he has shown us is that he is able to be consistent and perform at a really high level every day.”

Freeman praised Bracy for his ability to play multiple positions and step into a big role as a senior.

“We have used him at multiple positions. It’s impressive for him to be able to play nickel and then go out to corner and then go back to nickel and to be able to ask him to do different things,” Freeman said. “He’s really performing right now as a senior should, and he is a guy that we are really going to depend on. I couldn’t be more pleased with his performance.”

Bracy was proud of the secondary’s performance Saturday, and he emphasized the importance of competing with any opponent.

“The message we sent is that we are here to play ball,” Bracy said. “Any time we play, we want to come out and compete at the highest level. We are ready. It doesn’t matter what team we play or who it is, we just want to compete.”

Bracy emphasized the importance of limiting explosive plays, which the Irish did well for the most part against the Buckeyes.

“The receivers are going to catch the ball. That’s part of football, but we want to limit their explosive plays and limit the yards after catch,” Bracy said.

Another player who stood out for the Irish on Saturday was freshman cornerback Ben Morrison, who finished the night with three total tackles.

Bracy praised Morrison for his ability to step into his first collegiate game and make an impact.

“We knew what he could do coming in. We saw him ball out in our fall camp,” Bracy said. “We were 100% confident in his play, and it showed on the field.”

Freeman also praised Morrison and freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey for their performance on Saturday.

“To have Jaden Mickey and Ben Morrison play and perform at the level that they did in that game as true freshmen, they are going to be special,” Freeman said. “Both of those players are going to be special for our football program for years to come.”

Bracy also praised graduate student safety Brandon Joseph for being a captain of the Irish secondary.

“He’s a smart player, very athletic and can change the game,” Bracy said. “Having a guy like that along with the rest of our safeties is very helpful playing that nickel and corner position and knowing you have help over the top.”

Despite the secondary’s success against the Buckeyes, the Irish came up short, and Bracy knows his team can learn from this loss.

“It’s football. You are going to win some and lose some. There has to be a winner, and there has to be a loser,” Bracy said. “And if you lose, you have to learn from it and bounce back.”

Bracy is excited to return home this weekend and feed off the crowd’s energy.

“It feels great to be back at home with the fans supporting us. We are ready to move on and play the next game,” Bracy said.

Bracy emphasized the importance of the Irish focusing on this week’s upcoming game against Marshall and not dwelling on the past.

“It’s about the next game,” Bracy said. “Coach Freeman says all the time, ‘one play, one life.’ If things don’t go your way, on to the next week. Get in the film room, practice hard and get ready for next week.”

Junior defensive lineman Rylie Mills, who finished Saturday’s game with three tackles, is also one of the anchors of the Irish defense.

Despite the loss, Mills felt that the defense competed well against the Buckeyes and that the Irish could get another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs if they continue to improve and take care of business.

“The biggest takeaway is that we are right there. And if we take care of business and do what we can do day in and day out the rest of this season, I have no doubt that we will play that team again,” Mills said.

Mills emphasized the importance of constantly improving as the season progresses and competing every day in practice.

“As we go on this season, we have to trend upwards,” Mills said. “We have to go out and dominate every day of practice.”

When asked about finishing games strong this season, Mills stressed the importance of working hard towards the end of practices.

“When we get to later periods of practice, are guys getting tired and wavering off, or do we still have the same intensity as when we came out there?” Mills said. “There’s things like that where, as we get to the tougher part of practice you have to keep up with the same intensity that you started.”

Mills also mentioned that he and his teammates have meticulously watched the film from Saturday’s game to look for areas that they can improve.

“For me specifically, I noticed that I have to work my pad level lower and work my moves better,” Mills said. “I’m my harshest critic, so every time I come away from a game like that and watch the film, I notice some highlights and things I did okay. However, there are things that I look at and realize I can do better. I just look at those and I know if I can really perfect that, I can be that much greater next week.”

Mills acknowledged that the defense was firing on all cylinders in the first half of Saturday’s game, and he hopes that the defense can replicate that performance going forward.

“The biggest positive is for the first half of football, we were stopping them. We were stopping the run and dominating the guy in front of us and working moves to get to the quarterback,” Mills said.

Mills believes the Irish are capable of bouncing back this season and getting another shot at Ohio State in the playoffs.

“If we just keep preparing and being intense in practice and focusing on finishing, at the end of the season we will play those guys again,” Mills said. “I know we will be way more prepared and ready to go.”

Like Bracy, Mills is excited to be back in front of the home crowd this Saturday.

“I’m super pumped for it. It’s always great when you are at home and you have the crowd on your side,” Mills said. “Last week they weren’t cheering when we were moving down the field, so it will be nice to have that.”

Nate Moller


Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu