Six of the eight cornerbacks Mike Mickens inherits as Notre Dame’s latest football assistant coaching hire have never played a high-leverage snap on the collegiate level.
All six are freshmen, either true or of the redshirted variety.
At least the 32-year-old Huber Heights, Ohio, native knows firsthand what that feels like. He also knows what it’s like to transcend the inherent challenges that come with one of the least friendly positions on the field for a freshman to excel.
In 2005, Mickens did just that for recently retired Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio when the latter was coaching at the University of Cincinnati, and Mickens went on to become an All-Big East selection one year removed from Wayne High School in suburban Dayton, Ohio.
Current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who succeeded Dantonio at UC, inherited Mickens as a junior and helped keep him well ahead of the learning curve.
Mickens went on to earn All-America honors twice at UC, became a Thorpe semifinalist in 2008, and set school records for career interceptions (14) and interception return yards (296) that still stand today.
On Thursday, Mickens accepted Kelly’s offer to rejoin him — this time as a coach — exactly eight days after he interviewed for the job that’s so critical to the Irish College Football Playoff aspirations in 2020. No other position group carries as many uncertainties out of ND’s 11-2 season in 2019.
A source close to the process confirmed Mickens and ND coming to terms. The official announcement will come once he is run through Notre Dame’s George O’Leary-inspired vetting process.
Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel was the first to announce Mickens’ hiring.
Mickens’ charge as Todd Lyght’s successor is to upgrade ND’s cornerback recruiting as well as provide key backup and sub package pieces in 2020 to play behind and alongside projected starting corners, sixth-year grad student Shaun Crawford and junior-to-be TaRiq Bracy.
To both points, Mickens has been a force in his two seasons back at his alma mater after previous coaching stops at Indiana State, Idaho and Bowling Green.
The Bearcats ranked in the top 15 nationally in pass-efficiency defense both seasons Mickens was at UC as the cornerbacks coach and ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense both seasons.
As a recruiter, Mickens was credited with helping UC have the highest-ranked recruiting class nationally among the Group of Five schools and arguably better than that of Michigan State, the school Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell turned down last week to fill its vacancy, eventually going late Tuesday night to Colorado’s Mel Tucker.
Mickens’ marching orders at UC and his other coaching stops was to recruit regionally, so national recruiting will be a new step for him, just as it was for much of Kelly’s staff when he came to ND from Cincinnati after the 2009 season.
“He’s a young coach who was a standout in college and played in the NFL, so that helps a lot,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com, of Mickens.
“And he’s a hungry and aggressive recruiter. I think he’ll be a great fit to step up to ND recruiting level.”
A knee injury suffered during his senior season at UC coaxed Mickens toward coaching earlier than he expected. He fell from a projected first-round NFL Draft choice to the seventh round because of concerns about Mickens’ ability to come back from the injury.
The concerns proved to be well-founded. Mickens spent time on the rosters of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals and the Calgary Stampeders in 2009 and 2010 before retiring because of the injury.
Notre Dame on Jan. 2 announced Lyght was leaving his position after five seasons to “pursue future endeavors” and to reunite with his family, which had relocated to California. The former Irish All-America cornerback, while a strong developer of talent, struggled to recruit players who fit his own profile as a player.
His predecessors did as well.
Since Rivals started ranking recruits with the 2002 class, Notre Dame has signed only four cornerbacks ranked among the top 10 at the position and in the top 100 prospects overall, and none on Lyght’s watch: Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil in 2006, Gary Gray in 2007 and Tee Shepard in 2012.
Notre Dame altered its recruiting philosophy at the position during the most recent recruiting cycle that ended earlier this month. After the Irish whiffed on their top cornerback prospects in the 2020 class, they decided to pursue promising multi-position athletes with length rather than more polished cornerbacks who were lacking speed, size or both.
The Irish signed four — Ramon Henderson, Clarence Lewis, Caleb Offord and Landen Bartleson. Offord and Henderson are already on campus as early enrollees.
Bartleson was released from his National Letter of Intent by ND after being arrested Jan. 24 in Danville, Ky., on preliminary charges of burglary, criminal mischief and receiving stolen property over $10,000.
Isaiah Rutherord, KJ Wallace and converted wide receiver Cam Hart are the redshirt freshmen on the roster, with Rutherford and Wallace the most likely to challenge for playing time among the six inexperienced corners when spring practice starts in roughly three weeks.
“The kid’s relentless,” said departing starting cornerback Troy Pride Jr. of his pick to click in 2020, Rutherford. “He’s always going. He’s always wanting extra work ... He’s hungry for the game.”