The feedback Ryan Barnes received from Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens was unlike anything he had heard.
In his first conversations with Barnes, Mickens offered pointers on how the three-star cornerback from Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard could improve. How to close space quicker and stick with receivers during passing routes were two areas Mickens discussed with Barnes.
To Barnes, Mickens pinpointed weaknesses and gave him advice in a way that no other coach had. Not even at the top programs that offered Barnes a scholarship, including Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Oklahoma and Michigan.
Mickens only began dissecting Barnes’ film after being officially hired in March.
“Even though it’s been a month of him being there,” Barnes said, “he definitely seems like he fits and is comfortable there. I know that he knows what he’s talking about. We talked a little ball. Even though I’m not perfect in my knowledge of the position, just hearing him talk about it, it sounds like he knows what he’s doing.
“Notre Dame made a great decision with him. He’s going to be great there.”
Notre Dame’s cornerback recruiting saw an overhaul in Mickens’ first month. Of the 13 Irish offers extended to members of the 2021 class last month, six of them were defensive backs. Three cornerbacks among those six — Barnes, Sam Jackson and Philip Riley — already consider Notre Dame as a top school.
By quickly evaluating and identifying, Mickens now has more promising options.
For Barnes, he’s long been familiar with Notre Dame despite spending most of his childhood in Florida before relocating. His grandparents live approximately 50 miles southeast of South Bend, near Winona Lake, Ind.
“Any time we visited them, we’d go and see the campus,” Barnes said. “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. It’s a great school academically and athletically. It’s the whole package.”
The Irish are in position to land Barnes if they continue to push for him. The coaching staff already made him feel like a priority.
Defensive line coach Mike Elston first contacted Barnes in December. Director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney also reached out with Barnes about his interest and helped with the legwork aspect of his recruitment. Then defensive coordinator Clark Lea, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph and Mickens heated their pursuit of Barnes last month.
Joseph offered Barnes on March 25. Lea held FaceTime video calls with Barnes to discuss the big picture of what Notre Dame has to offer. Mickens talked more schematics, detailing to Barnes how they believe he could develop into any defensive back position.
247Sports projects Barnes as a cornerback, ranking him No. 36 at the position in the class. Rivals pegs Barnes as its No. 56 corner.
“I know that I can play any defensive back position on the field,” Barnes said. “The fact that they see that too is something that definitely sparked a lot of interest in that being a potential home for me.”
The Irish have informed Barnes and other recruits about their next two recruiting weekends, on June 12-14 and 19-21. Those tentative plans are subject to change if health officials continue to deem large gatherings a health hazard because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hosting Barnes for his first visit as a recruit will be the next step for Notre Dame. He intends to make an unofficial visit to South Bend in June or later before announcing a commitment decision.
“I definitely want to get a chance to get back to the school,” Barnes said. “Being able to see more in specifics with what the school has to offer. I have more of a broad knowledge on it.
“I want to be able to make a decision before my senior season. But if we find a place that we feel would be that home for me, I’m definitely willing to make that decision earlier or later if need be.”
A closer look at the other cornerback recruits mentioned, Jackson and Riley, are detailed below.
• Sam Jackson, 5-10, 170; Naperville (Ill.) Central: Despite being offered at a position he’s never played, Jackson already considers Notre Dame one of his favorite schools.
“His heart and soul has always been at quarterback,” said Michael Stine, Naperville Central’s head football coach. “That’s what he’s played since youth football and growing up. That’s where his dad sees him.
“Not that he’s not opposed to playing other positions. He’s played wide receiver for a year for us. He’s just never played defense for us at all.”
Jackson transferred to Stine’s program after spending his freshman year at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High. Bolingbrook is home to Notre Dame safety pledge Justin Walters, who remembers having two classes with Jackson that year.
“Hopefully he will take a visit to Notre Dame and see what it’s all about,” said Walters, who plans to take an official visit to Notre Dame in June. “But if the right school comes up, he will probably consider playing a different position.”
That school could be Notre Dame. Jackson dropped his verbal commitment from Minnesota in January, one month after taking a recruiting trip to South Bend. The Irish being one of the only schools to project Jackson on defense intrigued him.
Reggie Fleurima Jr., a four-star receiver in the 2022 class, and Walters are recruiting Jackson to Notre Dame. The Irish have not offered Fleurima, but he’s on their radar. He’s the son of former Notre Dame defensive lineman Reggie Fleurima Sr.
Stine said Jackson still considers Minnesota as a top three school, but advised him to not announce a commitment until football season.
“Since he has already committed and decommitted, the next time he commits will be the real deal,” Stine said. “But he doesn’t necessarily have the time frame where he needs to get this done.”
247Sports: Three stars, No. 28 ATH | Rivals: Three stars, No. 43 ATH
• Philip Riley, 6-0, 190; Valrico (Fla.) Bloomingdale: On April 3, nine days after garnering an Irish offer, Riley released his top seven schools.
Riley included Notre Dame, a school he’s never visited, along with Washington, Texas, Minnesota, Penn State, Mississippi State and Virginia Tech.
“Just the prestige of Notre Dame has for football and the academics side, it’s one of the better schools in the country. That’s the real reason why he chose them,” said Jacob Coulson, Riley’s head football coach at Bloomingdale.
Barnes and Riley project more as a boundary corner (short side) than at field corner (wide side), the position the Irish see Jackson playing. Coulson said Notre Dame’s coaching staff told him Riley’s physicality matches what they desire.
“He’s a very smart kid, so I think he knows that at the end of the day football is only going to last so long,” Coulson said. “I think he’s looking for the best university for him to go to and get a degree from.
“We were going to try to set a commitment date before football season. But now with this (pandemic) going on, I don’t know. I don’t know what’s realistic and what’s not realistic.”
247Sports: Three stars, No. 31 CB | Rivals: Four stars