Since free safety Dave Duerson garnered All-America distinction in 1982, just six Notre Dame defensive backs have earned first- or second-team All-America honors.
One of those six, Jeff Burris, compared current Irish cornerback Nick McCloud to a fellow former Notre Dame All-American. But he’s not one of the other five All-American defensive backs: Todd Lyght, Bobby Taylor, Shane Walton, Tom Zbikowski and Julian Love.
Burris likened him to two-time All-American offensive tackle Aaron Taylor.
Taylor collected quite a few accolades at Notre Dame, including the Lombardi Award in 1993. He also has distinguished himself off the field with his larger-than-life personality, motivational speaking and community service. His day job is as a college football analyst for CBS Sports Network.
How McCloud carries himself reminded Burris of his former teammate, who is a College Football Hall of Fame nominee.
“I think his leadership capabilities,” said Burris on what stands out about McCloud. “As a young man, he walks into a room and he has that charisma about him, that quiet confidence. He’s a well-liked, well-respected young man. Well-spoken young man. He’s very knowledgeable in all aspects of life.”
Burris, now Louisiana Tech’s defensive backs coach, knows McCloud well. McCloud grew up in Burris’ hometown: Rock Hill, S.C. Burris’ brother, Pat, coached Nick at South Pointe High with his father, Nakia McCloud. Nick became close with Jeff’s kids during his playing days.
In McCloud, Burris sees someone who could fill a valuable leadership role in the Irish secondary. With sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford switching to safety, Notre Dame’s cornerback group lacked experience. That move left junior TaRiq Bracy and McCloud as the only corners with starter reps. Their five other corners had played no high-leverage snaps.
Adding McCloud via graduate transfer from N.C. State this offseason alleviated some of those concerns.
During that transfer process, McCloud leaned on advice from Burris, Irish safety Houston Griffith and former Notre Dame and current Carolina Panthers defense back Troy Pride Jr.
Not long after McCloud entered the transfer portal in January, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented him from visiting schools. The departure of Todd Lyght left Notre Dame without a cornerbacks coach to pursue McCloud. So until the Irish officially hired Mike Mickens in March, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph led his recruitment.
“Being recruited during a pandemic was kind of rough,” McCloud said. “Just reaching out to those guys, and those guys just giving me the comfort I needed from a player standpoint was big in comfortably making my decision to come to Notre Dame.”
The decision seemed like a no-brainer to Burris, even with Alabama in the mix. He saw a perfect fit.
Since joining the program in May, McCloud has quickly established himself on the field. His impact is being felt in the locker room too, in regard to Notre Dame’s social justice efforts.
“He is a leader,” Burris said. “Off the field, he actually did a lot of community service type things. He was actively involved in his community. He’s actively involved in Black Lives Matter even more so right now.”
Strait Herron recalls McCloud resisting his decision.
Herron, McCloud’s former football coach at South Pointe, chose to play him on both sides of the ball as a junior. McCloud had served as South Pointe’s star cornerback. Herron wanted him to also play wide receiver.
An intelligent player needed to fill the void at that position, Herron said. The Stallions featured an up-tempo offense that called for players who could keep up with the rapid pace. McCloud fit that mold.
“He may not have liked it a whole lot, but with his maturity, he knew it was the best thing for the team,” said Herron, now the head football coach across town at Legion Collegiate Academy. “He always gave his best effort. I think it was great for him. It showed a lot of character in him, but it also helped him to mature.”
A couple of past experiences from McCloud’s playing days have helped shape him on and off the field. There was the position switch that tested him. Then there was the injury he endured last season.
McCloud suffered a partially torn MCL in his left knee, limiting his season to two games. The initial injury came in the season opener against Eastern Carolina. He returned 10 weeks later against Clemson but didn’t play in the final three games. He had been named a team captain.
That adversity influenced McCloud to change his mindset going forward.
“I feel like last year, I set a lot of individual goals and the season was just taken away from me,” McCloud said. “So this year, I’ve just been trying to focus on what I can do better on a daily basis rather than individual goals, awards or anything like that.”
Individual success will be within reach for McCloud this season. He secured his place as Notre Dame’s starting boundary corner. The past two Irish starters at that position, Love and Pride, were selected in back-to-back NFL Drafts.
Impressing and staying healthy will be keys for McCloud this season. His past experiences should keep him focused.
“He’s a very smart kid. He’s very observant,” Herron said. “Off the field, he’s very business-like. He has fun and enjoys himself. But he’s one of those who has a goal in mind and things he wants to accomplish. He sticks to the plan.
“You could definitely see him as a guy who could get picked in this year’s draft if the cards are played out right.”
Saturday meant Burris prepping for Louisiana Tech’s opponents in the Conference USA this season.
However, he still made time to watch McCloud’s first half in an Irish uniform. Notre Dame defeated Duke 27-13 in its season opener.
“I thought he did a hell of a job,” Burris said.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound McCloud covered Duke’s bigger receivers. His role requires him to be physical, contest 50-50 balls and offer run support.
Quarterback Chase Brice completed 4-of-7 passes for 39 yards when targeting McCloud’s man. McCloud tied for third on the team in tackles (five) and recorded a pass breakup on a back-shoulder throw. He nearly intercepted that pass.
The Irish featured McCloud in plenty of man-to-man coverage. What McCloud demonstrated in both techniques encouraged Burris about his potential for this season.
“He has a skill set that can play off or press. He does it very well,” Burris said. “When he’s up in press, he can be physical. But he has the length that can take away some of those deep-ball threats going down the field. That’s why you saw more back-shoulder fades against Duke.”
No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0, 1-0 ACC) and McCloud will play again this Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on USA Network) against South Florida (1-0). Head coach Brian Kelly said the Irish will likely rotate more players in the secondary going forward to mitigate fatigue.
How McCloud played figured to be a reason why he never came out of the game. He lined up at corner for all of Brice’s 37 pass attempts.
“Nick did a really good job,” Kelly said. “He had a couple of back-shoulder (throws) that he competed for. We are not going to lose if you throw a back-shoulder (throw) on us every once in a while. Nick, he wants to compete for every football.
“We told him, ‘Look, if they throw a back-shoulder here and there, we are going to be in good shape. Just stay in good fundamental position.’”
Advice comes not just from Kelly and the coaching staff. McCloud also seeks guidance from Stephon Gilmore, the star cornerback for the New England Patriots who claimed the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019.
Gilmore knows McCloud from being a former South Pointe football player.
“If I have a question,” McCloud said, “I can go to the locker room and text him anything. He’s going to hit me back right away. That relationship and the knowledge of the game has definitely been beneficial to me becoming a good press corner and continuing to become better.”
Pride and Griffith are available for advice, too. Then there’s Burris. Burris might be watching McCloud from afar. He might only catch a quarter here and there. He might be preoccupied preparing for his next game.
But Burris knows McCloud’s potential as a football player and beyond, and what all that means for the Irish secondary.
“One of my favorite players on the team is Shaun Crawford,” Burris said. “Shaun, I love him to death. I think with Shaun’s leadership from a safety standpoint and what Nick brings from a leadership standpoint, I think they have a chance to be very solid in the back end.”