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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s Defensive Backs

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When Notre Dame finally announced the hirings of tight ends coach John McNulty and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s praise for Mickens will echo for the next nine months.

“Mike has shown an incredible ability to get the most out of his players,” Kelly said.

Mickens will need to do exactly that for Notre Dame’s defense to remain a strength in 2020, considering the lack of depth and proven talent the Irish have at cornerback.

Spring roster, in order of eligibility remaining:
— Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford, courtesy of an NCAA waiver.
— Ohio State graduate transfer safety Isaiah Pryor, with two years of eligibility remaining.
— Rising junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy and classmate Houston Griffith, now back at safety after bouncing between the two positions the last two seasons.
— Rising junior safety DJ Brown
— Rising sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, the star of the unit and a prospective All-American.
— Sophomore cornerbacks KJ Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford and Cam Hart, the latter a converted receiver.
— Sophomore safety Litchfield Ajavon
— Early-enrolled freshman cornerbacks Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson.

Summer arrivals:
Only consensus three-star Clarence Lewis will join the group in the summer, a shifty New Jersey product who could provide depth at nickel back, though it is more likely he spends the season on the sideline.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter — Clarence Lewis

Lewis will arrive alone after consensus three-star cornerback Landen Bartleson’s spot on the roster was revoked after a January arrest for burglary, criminal mischief and receiving stolen property.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame cuts ties with CB signee Landen Bartleson

Depth Chart Possibilities:
The only thing that could drown out the worries about replacing three starters in the secondary is the hype that will accompany Hamilton’s first spring. Each of his preseason interceptions built a myth that grew to such a size, the corresponding reality seemed beyond the wildest dreams, only for Hamilton to then return an interception for a touchdown on his very first snap in Notre Dame Stadium.

Hamilton’s second act will not actually begin until after a transatlantic flight, but its hype will commence Thursday. That may not truly be a “depth chart possibility,” given Hamilton’s assured spot as a starter, but it might overshadow those possibilities, perhaps even understandably.

Pryor’s pedigree makes him Hamilton’s presumptive running buddy, and with two years of eligibility remaining, the duo could form a partnership right through the 2022 NFL combine. (Sound familiar?)

Griffith, however, will get a chance to bump Pryor to the same role he had with the Buckeyes. One reader question asked, “What’s the over/under on the light turning on and Griffith having the spring that makes him a starting CB?” Aside from apparently not quite understanding the concept of an over/under, the better question would have asked about Griffith at safety. It was the position the former four-star was recruited for, and his time at cornerback as a freshman was more a result of an absolute necessity at nickel back after Crawford suffered a preseason injury than it was a long-term trajectory.

Even if Griffith does not make Pryor sweat, the Irish would like to deploy a three-safety rotation, just as they did last year with Hamilton in the complementary role. If Griffith cannot make that a viability, then Brown and Ajavon will get cracks at it.

Meanwhile, Mickens will be able to rely on Crawford as a starter, presuming health. If size and muscle were not wanted attributes, Mickens would have an easy choice for his second starter in Bracy, who may have been Notre Dame’s best cover corner at points last season. But he is just as slight as Crawford, making that a worrisome cornerback pairing.

The options beyond Bracy, though, are unknowns like Wallace (impressed in 2019’s preseason), Rutherford (impressed in November) and Hart (has the size, if not the history).

2019 departures:
There is no easy way to go about replacing three starters in the secondary. Even if their combine performances were not the measurements of lore, Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott and Troy Pride led Notre Dame’s defensive backfield for three seasons. Their increased roles played vital parts in the Irish pass efficiency defense improving from No. 46 in 2017 to No. 6 in 2018 to No. 5 in 2019.

2019 statistically speaking:
Alohi Gilman: 74 tackles with three for loss; one interception and two pass breakups.
Jalen Elliott: 49 tackles; two interceptions and two pass breakups.
Kyle Hamilton: 41 tackles with one for loss; four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and six additional pass breakups.
Troy Pride: 40 tackles; one interception and six pass breakups.
TaRiq Bracy: 34 tackles; seven pass breakups.
Shaun Crawford: 28 tackles with one for loss; one interception and two pass breakups.
Donte Vaughn: 16 tackles; five pass breakups.
DJ Brown: Seven tackles
Houston Griffith: Five tackles; one pass breakup.
KJ Wallace: One tackle while preserving a year of eligibility.

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.