For the fifth straight offseason, Notre Dame will look for a new starting boundary cornerback.
Nick McCloud announced via social media on Tuesday that he will declare for the NFL Draft. He becomes the latest one-and-done No. 1 boundary corner for the Irish.
Notre Dame planned on having McCloud for one season when plucking him as a graduate transfer from N.C. State in June. But the NCAA implemented a new rule in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic stipulating that this season does not count as a year of eligibility. Still, McCloud declined that option.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound McCloud led the Irish with eight pass breakups and claimed third-team All-ACC honors this season. McCloud also tallied 33 tackles, two tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
“He’s been incredible,” said former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea last month. “For a guy to come in and just really tie into the fabric of our defense, he is completely a part of who we are. And so we are grateful for his efforts. We are grateful for him choosing to come here and we know it’s been mutually beneficial for him. So those things work out. But we are very, very proud of Nick.”
Notre Dame has deployed a boundary-field setup for its cornerbacks since Mike Elko became defensive coordinator in 2017. Boundary corners line up on the shorter side of the field. They often cover tall, physical wide receivers and must offer run support. Field corners operate on the wider side of the field and tend to cover more space and shiftier wide receivers.
Lea continued to use the boundary-field scheme for the Irish after taking over as their coordinator in 2018. With Lea taking the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, there's no guarantee Notre Dame will keep the same structure under its new coordinator.
Nick Watkins started at boundary corner for much of 2017 after missing the previous season with a broken arm. Former consensus All-American Julian Love operated at field corner that season before taking Watkins’ place in 2018.
Troy Pride Jr. followed the same path as Love, starting at field corner in 2018 before moving to boundary the following season. Pride departed for the 2020 NFL Draft and was selected in the fourth round by the Carolina Panthers.
With minimal experience at cornerback coming into this season, the Irish turned to acquiring McCloud. He preserved a year of eligibility after missing all but two games for the Wolfpack in 2019. McCloud was named as a captain for N.C. State season before suffering a partially torn MCL in his knee.
Notre Dame finished No. 14 in scoring defense, No. 25 in total defense and No. 34 in pass-efficiency defense with the help of McCloud this season.
“The thing with Nick that stuck out was just how committed he was to being a part of this,” Lea said last month. “And that was important to us. His personality, his character was evident through the process. Even when we were unsure. We weren’t sure what he had, but he kept — he was always there. He was always ready. He was always excited about the potential. And that goes a long way.
“Obviously we had film on him. We knew he had played a lot of football in the ACC. He had been a captain. We knew he had battled injury. But we felt like that injury was — he was going to work his way through that and be fine.
“And we weren’t sure that he would come in and be the starter at all. He had to earn that. And from day one, it wasn’t guaranteed. But early on in fall camp, he asserted himself as an alpha, as a player on the field. And he made it an easy decision for us as far as who was going to play that boundary spot.”
Replacing McCloud may require the Irish to reshuffle its secondary. Junior TaRiq Bracy and true freshman Clarence Lewis are the only cornerbacks who have played high-leverage snaps in college. But they received game action at the same position, sharing time at field cornerback this season.
The 6-1, 180-pound Lewis brings better size for the boundary position than Bracy (5-10, 180). So maybe Lewis (boundary) and Bracy (field) start as bookend cornerbacks in 2021. Or maybe the Irish add another grad transfer..
Sophomore Cam Hart is also an option after serving as the No. 2 boundary corner this season. He switched to defense midway through his freshman year after signing as a wide receiver in the 2019 class. Freshman Ramon Henderson lined up as the unofficial No. 3 boundary corner this season.
Philip Riley, a four-star cornerback in the 2021 recruiting class, signed with Notre Dame in December. He projects as a boundary corner. Three-star cornerbacks JoJo Johnson, Ryan Barnes and Chance Tucker were also added to the Irish during the three-day early signing period last month.