How are cornerback recruits perceiving new Notre Dame assistant coach Mike Mickens?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

To cancel Devonta Smith’s recruiting trip to South Bend would be to bring two years of Notre Dame’s progress to a halt.

And that became an unfortunate reality for the Irish, at least in the short term. Smith’s visit, scheduled for Tuesday, was next up amid Notre Dame’s busy recruiting month.

Smith’s visit will have to come later. In hopes to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the NCAA suspended all Division I football programs from engaging in on- and off-campus recruiting through April 15.

How the Irish and others are tweaking their recruiting approach because of this development is already being felt by Smith and his fellow members of the 2021 recruiting class.

Without spring practice, visits and other team activities to tackle, college coaches have more time to contact high school recruits over the phone. And they are taking advantage.

“It’s going on constantly,” said Smith of the constant texts and calls he receives. “It went up another level.”

On Thursday, one day after Ohio State head coach Ryan Day announced a team-imposed suspension of recruiting visits, the Buckeyes offered Smith. Head coach Brian Kelly called the 6-foot, 185-pound Smith on Friday to apologize for his visit falling through.

New cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who also phoned Smith that day, could be tested the most among the Irish staff in the coming months as previous recruiting whiffs from former cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght are beginning to show this cycle.

Top targets Jordan Hancock (Clemson) and Jakailin Johnson (Ohio State) committed elsewhere within the last week. Other cornerback targets Deuce Harmon, Corey Coley Jr., Dyson McCutcheon have yet to visit Notre Dame.

Mickens appeared to position the Irish well with those four recruits, intending to bring all of them on campus this spring. With those plans off the board, Mickens will now need to contact his primary targets more than usual to keep pace with other top programs.

Cornerback recruits describe Mickens as energetic, including Smith. He would know. When Mickens served as cornerbacks coach for the University of Cincinnati, he made Smith feel like a top priority. Smith garnered an offer from the Bearcats in June.

“The first day (Mickens) officially got the job, he called me,” Smith said. “He told me I’m his No. 1 priority and that he’s coming after me. He’s very energetic. We were always close when he was at UC. I’ve got a good relationship with him.”

Landing Smith will require Notre Dame fending off the heavy favorite, Ohio State. Smith and his mother shed tears when he garnered his offer from the Buckeyes. He expects to make a decision this spring.

Without a campus visit from Smith this week, it could prove more difficult for Mickens to pull off what would be considered an upset among recruiting analysts. But he’s not giving up yet. How his new recruiting approach pays off will be worth monitoring.

“He told me he’s going to be recruiting me hard,” Smith said. “He really wants me. He’s going to fight to get me.”

Below are Notre Dame’s other top cornerbacks targets who planned to visit South Bend this spring. They weighed in on Mickens and their current status.

CB Ceyair Wright, 6-0, 175; Los Angeles Loyola: Productions aren’t unfamiliar for Wright, a budding actor set to play LeBron James’ son in Space Jam 2 next summer.

Yet Wright left his December visit fascinated by Notre Dame’s Echoes Awards — a show honoring the football team following the regular season.

“It was so large scale that it was really crazy,” Wright said. “I would probably compare it to the ESPYs, just a little bit smaller than that. But it was still a big deal for just Notre Dame football players. It showed me they really care about the team.”

With Lyght on his way out, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph headed Wright’s recruitment at that point. In the two weeks since Mickens took over, Wright has felt like a high priority to the Irish coaching staff.

“I definitely need to get up there and meet (Mickens),” Wright said. “That’s my main thing now since I haven’t seen him in person. I want to get up there and really start to build a strong relationship with him.”

“He had a lot of energy and is excited to meet me. He’s excited to be there. That stood out to me, that he had great energy coming in. I could tell that he was passionate about what he was doing.

“He cared about talking to me. He took the initiative to talk with me super early.”

Deuce Harmon, 5-10, 185; Denton (Texas) Guyer: That Harmon scheduled his first recruiting visit to South Bend while Notre Dame was still searching for a cornerbacks coach shows his interest in the university.

Just weeks after accruing his Notre Dame offer in late January, Harmon scheduled an April 3-5 unofficial visit to South Bend. Those plans changed, but Harmon’s intentions didn’t. He considers Notre Dame as a top school, along with Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Oregon and USC.

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian, joined by Joseph, contacted Harmon more than anyone on Notre Dame’s coaching staff before Mickens’ arrival. Their efforts, and Mickens showing interest in his family, made an impression on Harmon.

“(Mickens) cares about more than his kids’ football careers,” said Harmon, who hopes to visit Notre Dame again before announcing a commitment later in the summer. “It matters not as much as their life after football. I think he cares more about how to build the person. Not just the football player.”

Corey Coley Jr., 6-1, 170; Jacksonville (Fla.) Trinity Christian Academy: Coley told the Tribune he talks with Mickens every day.

Mickens’ involvement in Coley’s recruitment suggest he will look to reschedule another trip after he planned to visit this month.

“He’s a cool dude. I can tell the relationship between me and him is genuine,” Coley said. “I know it’s authentic. I can tell he’s a pretty energized dude. Really positive. He’s just trying to get more out there on a visit.”

Dyson McCutcheon, 5-10, 165; La Puente (Calif.) Bishop Amat: USC has cooled off on McCutcheon, while Mickens has also not been involved much with his recruitment yet.

There are significant influences from USC and Notre Dame regarding McCutcheon’s recruitment. Either school could land McCutcheon if they push for him.

Dyson’s father and cornerbacks coach at Bishop Amat, Daylon McCutcheon, played for the Trojans as a defensive back before the Cleveland Browns selected him in the third round of the 1999 NFL Draft.

Since playing with Daylon at Bishop Amat, former Irish linebacker Kory Minor has remained close with the McCutcheon family. Minor looked to educate Dyson about Notre Dame before meeting Mickens on his first trip to South Bend.

“(Minor is) as excited as I am that I’m going to go out there and check out the school,” said McCutcheon before his March 27-28 visit got nixed. “It’s been great to have him prepare me for what to expect. He said that it’s next level.

“He said it’s different out there, but that it’s a good type of different. It’s nothing like California. Of course, the weather and all of that is different. But there’s so much around the school with having the football and the education.”

• Another cornerback recruit on the table if Notre Dame pushes for him: Indianapolis Ben Davis’ Daylan Carnell.

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Cincinnati La Salle’s Devonta Smith, a three-star cornerback in the 2021 class, reported a Notre Dame scholarship offer in late January.