As much as freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis’ inclusion as a possible starter on Notre Dame’s first football depth chart of the season initially had the feel of a typo, the real mistake may be underestimating what Mon’s snapshot could eventually turn into.
“I think the sky’s the limit,” offered Ryan Daly, a linebackers coach at Lewis’ high school, Mater Dei Prep in Middletown, N.J., and a full-time police officer who runs a side business training athletes. found creative ways to do so with Lewis around COVID-19 restrictions in the weeks leading up to the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder’s mid-June arrival at Notre Dame.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly didn’t disagree with Daly’s sentiments in his Mon Zoom conference call with the media, in which he compared Lewis’ early impressions and career trajectory to that of KeiVarae Russell.
Russell was a surprise starter at corner as a freshman on ND’s 2012 team that produced historic defensive numbers and drove Notre Dame’s national championship game run.
A third-round NFL draft pick and No. 74 selection overall in the spring of 2016, he remains the highest-drafted Irish corner since Bobby Taylor went in the second round and No. 50 overall in 1995.
“I don’t know if Clarence has the same athletic ability in terms of raw athletic ability,” Kelly said. “KeiVarae was really a gifted athlete.
“Clarence has clearly demonstrated that as a true freshman, we could put him on the field at the same level or possibly even higher than the level that KeiVarae had to play as a true freshman. We did pretty good that year.”
For now Lewis is listed as an either/or option at the top of the depth chart at field cornerback with junior TaRiq Bracy for 10th-ranked Notre Dame’s season opener with Duke, Satur at Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
Bracy was one of just three cornerbacks of the nine when training camp opened Aug. 12 who had played as much as a single meaningful snap in a college game. The others were NC State grad transfer Nick McCloud, the projected starter at the boundary cornerback position, and Shaun Crawford, a sixth-year player who will start Satur at the strong safety position.
Given that cornerback was perceived to be the position group with the most unanswered questions and the most fragility heading into this offseason, it’s a testament to the Irish defensive coaching staff — including first-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens — that Crawford and sophomore KJ Wallace shifting to safety were moves the position could absorb.
Converted wide receiver Cam Hart, a 6-3, 207-pound sophomore, also rose into the two-deeps in the past month and now backs up McCloud.
“(Mickens) instills it into their mind, ‘Hey we’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to be confident. And this is the way we’re going to play.’” said Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, who worked at UC with Mickens the past two seasons. “I think he does a great job of building trust.
“I think you can only push guys as far as you can trust them, and that’s the No. 1 thing. He builds trust within a room. And I think that’s why he can get those guys to play at such a high level at a young age.”
And yet Lewis’ recruiting hype, or lack of it, didn’t suggest he’d be one to emerge so early.
Rivals.com listed him as the No. 81 cornerback prospect nationally in the 2020 class, while 247Sports had him at No. 54. Both services rated him as a three-star prospect.
That apparent mirage unravels when Daly and Mater Dei head coach Dino Mangiero provide some context.
It starts with speed. Lewis, an accomplished sprinter throughout high school for the Mater Dei track and field team, ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash as a sophomore at a combined Monmouth/Virginia Tech camp.
“Virginia Tech offered him on the spot because of that time,” Mangiero said. “He’s very fast. I’d imagine he’s even faster now.”
But later in his high school career, Lewis ran 4.59, and that number got widely circulated in recruiting circles.
“It must have been a bad ,” Daly said. “That’s not who he is.”
Who Clarence Lewis is starts with an unselfish core. His move to safety his senior season, while doubling as a wide receiver on offense, was out of necessity and meant fewer evaluation opportunities for Lewis to climb in the recruiting industry’s star system.
“When we had him at corner, he locked down that receiver, but that was it,” said Mangiero, a former All-America defensive lineman at Rutgers who played six seasons in the NFL. “He wasn’t involved in the game really. So we felt like you have an athlete of that caliber, who’s fast and can tackle, you want him in the middle of the field, where he can really affect the game.
“In college, though, you want him at cornerback. It’s very hard to find a kid that can play corner. You can basically play anybody with a little speed at wide receiver and tell them what to do. But corners are different. That’s why they get paid so much money in the NFL.
“They are very good athletes, very instinctive. Along with very good straight-line speed, they have to be very quick. So very clever. And they’re out there on an island.
“There’s 100,000 people looking at them when they screw up. It’s not like a defensive tackle or offensive guard. They make a mistake and no one even realizes it. You have to be able to handle pressure. Clarence Lewis can do all of those things.”
Legal problems purged fellow 2020 signee Landen Bartleson from the freshman cornerback class. The other two, Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson, were early enrollees. COVID-19 largely wiped out their early advantage, limiting them to a single spring practice on March 5.
But Lewis had to deal with his senior track season being wiped out. So he found a way during the stay-at-home orders to get some work in with Daly, who counts Notre Dame women’s basketball incoming transfer Dara Mabrey among his clientele.
“I was able to get him on the field with some other elite-level guys,” Daly said, “and got him working on some linear speed, some lateral speed, some multi directional stuff. Got him into some field sessions to keep him moving and get him working on some details with his speed training and his conditioning.
“So what he’s doing now at Notre Dame isn’t surprising to me. Being on a Division I meal plan and on a schedule where he’s monitored 24/7, I knew that would be beneficial for him. And I knew he’d definitely put on some size and grow a little more and create some really good habits there.”
Daly and Lewis have talked on the phone twice this week, and Daly said Lewis is processing his ascending status exactly how he’d expect.
“He’s just a great kid that is doing a good job of handling everything,” Daly said. “He’s a kid who has no ego. He’ll always put the team before himself.
“Look at what he did his senior year in high school. How many kids that are three-star kids with Notre Dame offers are going to play safety instead of saying, ‘Hey coach, I’m a corner. I want to be a four-star. I want to be a five-star.’
“He’s in great hands with the coaching staff at Notre Dame. How humble he is and how hard-working he is, it’s really going to pay off. I love what his future could look like.”