Recruiting analysis: Breakdown of Notre Dame's three cornerback commits
Clarence Lewis understood the potentially dire situation that looms for Notre Dame’s cornerback group.
Senior cornerbacks Shaun Crawford, Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn expire their eligibility following this college football season. That leaves sophomore TaRiq Bracy as the only returning corner with substantial experience. Freshmen Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace and recently converted Cam Hart have yet to play high-leverage snaps.
Dino Mangiero, Lewis’ high school coach at Mater Dei High in Middletown, N.J., remembers why the three-star cornerback recruit pledged to the Irish in June. Playing early seemed conceivable.
“He chose Notre Dame because of that situation,” Mangiero said. “He had a lot of big-time (Virginia Tech, Nebraska, Kentucky) offers. There was an opportunity to come in there, compete and play. That was one of the reasons why he chose Notre Dame.
“Probably one of the smaller reasons, but it still was a factor that he would have a chance to play (early). It wasn’t like they had three All-American sophomores and he had to sit for two or three years.”
Fellow 2020 cornerback commits Caleb Offord and Landen Bartleson share the same sentiment. The idea of seeing the field early contributed to why they will both enroll as midyears in January.
Though all three have position flexibility, Notre Dame plans to give each of them a long look at corner first. Adding another safety in Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor helped Notre Dame pump the brakes on the idea of Lewis, Bartleson or Offord moving to safety in the short-term. The current situation calls for bringing in as many bodies to cornerback as possible.
The Irish aren’t done adding to their 2020 recruiting class, either. With 17 commits in the class, Notre Dame is looking to add at least another corner in Ramon Henderson out of Bakersfield (Calif.) Liberty High. Whether the Irish add another graduate transfer remains to be seen.
Below is a breakdown of Notre Dame’s three cornerback pledges and how they project as college players.
• Clarence Lewis, 6-0, 180; Middletown (N.J.) Mater Dei
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 52 CB, No. 631 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars.
Senior stats: 57 tackles, eight pass breakups and two interceptions; 23 catches for 274 yards and six touchdowns; 20 carries for 257 yards in nine games.
Position projection: Boundary cornerback.
Analysis: Lewis moving from cornerback to safety for his senior season had nothing to do with him potentially switching to the latter position down the road.
Mangiero insists Mater Dei’s defense works best with Lewis manning their hybrid safety position.
“But he’s a corner every day of the week in college,” Mangiero said.
Lewis’ new role involves him moving up to the line of scrimmage and covering shifty inside receivers one-on-one like a nickelback would. He also offers run support, which explains his sizable increase in tackles this season (57) after recording 31 last year.
Mater Dei (6-3) still has at least one game left, facing Pope John XXIII in the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group 3 quarterfinals on Saturday.
“He comes downhill and he plays the run,” Mangiero said. “We never asked him to do that at corner. Those guys don’t get paid to tackle. He’s a better overall football player now.
“His experience at safety has made him become a better tackler, he’s learned how to play off-man coverage, he’s learned to play zone where he’s more in the middle of the field.”
Notre Dame’s field corner position requires a burner that can cover a large amount of space. That does not appear to be Lewis, who clocked an underwhelming 40-yard dash of 4.59 seconds in April. The proper fit for Lewis seems like the opposite boundary corner.
Currently held by Troy Pride Jr., the Irish boundary corner position requires a physical defender that can jam taller receivers at the line of scrimmage and contest jump balls. Because the boundary lines up closer to the ball than the field corner, the former receives more work against the running game.
Operating as a hybrid safety this season seemed to prepare Lewis to handle those boundary responsibilities. His improvement as a tackler and in coverage likely makes him the most equipped among the three corner commits to play immediately.
The Irish coaching staff has not inquired about Lewis moving to safety or nickelback, but he’s open to a move after his experience this season.
“Whatever they want me to play, I will play,” Lewis said. “After this year, I learned a lot about playing safety. So I would be more comfortable if they wanted to put me there in the near future.”
• Caleb Offord, 6-1, 175; Southaven (Miss.) High
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 42 CB, No. 539 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars, No. 52 CB.
Senior stats: 22 tackles, four pass breakups, one interception, one fumble recovery for a touchdown and one forced fumble in 11 games.
Position projection: Field cornerback.
Analysis: Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght talked with Offord in June about possibly switching him to safety. Offord told the Tribune their discussion highlighted that such a move would depend on how his body developed.
Alohi Gilman (5-11, 202 pounds), Jalen Elliott (6-1, 210 pounds) and Kyle Hamilton (6-4, 210 pounds) all exceed 200 pounds, so Offord would need to gain a decent amount of weight. Doing so appears off the table for Offord — at least for now — because the Pryor addition alleviated Notre Dame’s need at safety.
Avery Patton, Southaven High’s defensive backs coach, doubts Offord’s body has that growth potential anyways.
“He’s more of a corner than a safety,” Patton said. “I’ve watched Notre Dame football over the years. Just from watching, they like very, very physical safeties. Caleb can tackle and is a good tackler. What they’ll ask him to do — I mean he’s not a 200-pound kid. He doesn’t have a 200-pound frame. His coverage skills outweigh his tackling skills, I will say that.”
Patton envisions Offord developing into a field corner, though that projection raises questions. Offord is the slowest of the three commits, clocking a 4.61 40-yard dash in May. He’s also the lengthiest, which could bode well for him at boundary corner.
Southaven’s season hardly provided definitive answers on Offord. The Chargers’ porous run defense played a major role in them finishing 2-9. With Offord playing opposite of an all-state corner, opposing teams rarely passed. Patton estimated that Southaven’s opponents totaled nine or fewer passes during a four-game stretch.
“You can imagine how the season goes for a corner that’s not asked to do much because no one passes on him,” Patton said.
Offord hopes to attend Notre Dame’s Nov. 23 home game against Boston College. He will return again two months later as a midyear.
“His length will help him play good press-coverage,” Patton said. “Man coverage stuff like jamming and bumping, his length will help him do it. Plus, that’s what we’ve asked him to do over the years anyways.
“As far as the things he needs to work on, I think his height kind of limits his ability to drop his hips and come out of his breaks. (However), he has a burst. A lot of people were showing concerns about his top-end speed, but he has a burst.”
• Landen Bartleson, 6-1, 185; Danville (Ky.) Boyle County
247Sports ranking: Three stars, No. 30 ATH, No. 505 overall.
Rivals ranking: Three stars.
Senior stats: 24 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one interception and one pass breakup; 42 carries for 326 yards and a touchdown; two catches for 48 yards and a touchdown in nine games.
Position projection: Field cornerback.
Analysis: What separates Bartleson from the other two corner commits is his speed. At an Ohio State football camp during the summer before his junior season, Bartleson posted a 4.39 40-yard dash.
Only a few Notre Dame players possess better speed. Pride (4.30) is one of them, and that’s partly why he held his own as the starting field corner in 2018. Bartleson could become that version of Pride at field corner. His speed alone gives him better upside than Lewis and Offord.
“When the receiver cuts, his makeup speed is really, really good,” Boyle County head coach Chuck Smith said of Bartleson. “He’s just so much faster than everybody else he plays against that it’s really hard to (create separation).”
Smith started involving Bartleson as a receiver this season. He’s always been a two-way player and received scholarship offers from Louisville, Colorado and others to play running back. He brings position flexibility — on both sides of the ball — to Notre Dame. But the Irish envision him at cornerback for now.
Bartleson missed two games this season after pulling his hamstring. He returned before the playoffs and will play on Friday. Boyle County (11-0) will square off against Lexington Catholic in round two of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs.
“He’s starting to get back into the form that he was in when he went down,” Smith said. “We’ve moved him around. He plays his corner position, and basically nobody throws the ball over there to him. He gets a little bored with that.”
The following recruits are expected to visit Notre Dame for Saturday's game against Navy.
OL Michael Carmody
DL Gabriel Rubio
QB Ron Powlus III
WR Dekel Crowdus
WR Andrew Wilson-Lamp
OL Noah Bolticoff
OL Parker Bates
DL Aaron Armitage
DB Sidney Jefferies
DB Mitch Leigber
QB Gunnar Smith
QB Donovan Leary
WR Jihaad Campbell
WR Tommy Winton
OL Fisher Anderson
OL Joseph Brunner
OL Carson Hinzman
OL Jeremiah Jackson
OL Hunter Whitenack
DB Trevon Howard
DB Xavier Nwankpa
DL Joe Strickland
DL Brenan Vemon