How new Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens brings best out of his players

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

When Mike Mickens told then-sophomore cornerback Cam Jefferies in December 2017 that he would be leaving Bowling Green, Jefferies didn’t hesitate with a response.

“Where are you going?” Jefferies asked. “I’m coming with you.”

Mickens, who just finished his fourth season as the cornerbacks coach for Bowling Green, didn’t have any answers for Jefferies yet. But Jefferies recalled Mickens telling him to focus on himself and consult his family on any potential decision.

Jefferies went through spring practice at Bowling Green, but he couldn’t find a reason to stay. Mickens was the biggest reason Jefferies ended up at Bowling Green in the first place. Mickens recruited Jefferies as a two-star prospect out of Painesville (Ohio) Riverside in the 2016 class.

Jefferies committed to then-head coach Dino Babers in 2015, but Babers left for Syracuse before National Signing Day the next February. Every assistant coach under Babers left Bowling Green except for Mickens. When Mickens told Jefferies he was staying with the Falcons, Jefferies stuck with his commitment.

Jefferies played in 21 of the 24 games in his first two seasons at Bowling Green, but he didn’t feel a connection with the new coaching staff beyond Mickens. The Falcons only managed to win six games in the first two years under head coach Mike Jinks. It was quite the drop off from Bowling Green’s 10-3 run to a MAC Championship in 2015 in Babers’ final season.

When Mickens was hired at Cincinnati, Jefferies reached out to see if he could transfer there. Initially, Mickens said he wasn’t sure if they had a scholarship available. Despite the uncertainty, Jefferies decided his best path would be to graduate before his junior season and transfer to another school with immediate eligibility — regardless if Cincinnati would be his final destination.

Graduating two years after enrolling at Bowling Green wouldn’t be easy. A college advisor even told Jefferies it wasn’t possible even though Jefferies left high school with more than 30 credit hours from dual-enrollment at a community college. In order to graduate in August 2018, Jefferies had to change his major and take 21 credit hours — 15 more than he would have normally taken — in the summer. Jefferies even had to pay for some of the classes himself.

Other schools showed interest in taking on Jefferies as a transfer, including Nebraska, but Jefferies had his mind set on Cincinnati when Mickens let him know he had a scholarship available for him.

“There was some cost that came with me transferring, but it was worth it for me because I felt like with coach Mickens I was going to be the best player that I could possibly be,” Jefferies said. “I wasn’t going to cut myself of that opportunity.”

The football program at Cincinnati wasn’t coming off much success either. The Bearcats won just four games each in 2016 and 2017. With Mickens joining new head coach Luke Fickell, Jefferies had no doubt the program would make a quick turnaround.

“I was confident that (Mickens) was going to be able to come in and have an impact on that team,” Jefferies said. “I knew he was going to make me the best player that I could be. I ended up going there and honestly I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Jefferies, who started 17 games and recorded 34 tackles, 15 pass breakups and two interceptions in his two seasons with the Bearcats, made that statement during a lunch break on his first day of work for Restaurant Brands International in Miami. Less than two months after playing in his final game at Cincinnati to end a senior season hampered by injuries to his back and wrists, Jefferies has already embarked on a professional career outside of football.

Mickens has moved on from Cincinnati as well. The 32-year-old former All-American for the Bearcats agreed to coach cornerbacks at Notre Dame. The university has yet to announce his hiring, but a Tribune source confirmed the Mickens-ND agreement earlier this month. He will reunite with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who was the head coach at Cincinnati for the final two seasons of Mickens’ college career.

Jefferies is confident that Mickens will be successful in South Bend — and soon.

“When you have someone coaching you with his background and his résumé, meaning his playing time and where he’s been coaching and what he’s done, the respect is given right away,” Jefferies said. “You don’t question it.”

Alfonso Mack, left, became a walk-on starter at Bowling Green for cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens after playing at South Bend Washington High.

Coaching edge

When Mike Mickens became the cornerbacks coach at Bowling Green in 2014, he was just 26 years old. Former Bowling Green cornerback Alfonso Mack immediately thinks of Mickens’ age when asked to recall his first impression of Mickens.

Mack, who played high school football at South Bend Washington, was a redshirt sophomore when Mickens joined Bowling Green’s staff and less than seven years younger than his new coach. He soon learned that Mickens’ age didn’t represent a lack of knowledge.

“His experience as a player at Cincinnati and his time through the NFL process gave him something that not many people have,” Mack said of Mickens. “It’s like this edge about him, this knowledge of the game from personal experience at a really high level. I remember that and being like, ‘Oh man, this dude’s legit. I’m glad he’s here.’”

Mickens’ playing experience still belongs near the top of his résumé as he enters his 10th year of coaching. In four years as a cornerback at Cincinnati, Mickens set the school record with 14 interceptions. He was named an FWAA All-American following his junior season and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (top defensive back) following his senior season.

Mickens suffered a knee injury late in his senior season at Cincinnati, which ended up derailing his pro career. The Dallas Cowboys selected him in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, but he never played in a game during short stints with the Cowboys, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cincinnati Bengals that season. He retired from football in 2010 after being released by the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders.

Mickens quickly transitioned to coaching and spent a year each at Cincinnati (graduate assistant), Indiana State (graduate assistant) and Idaho (cornerbacks coach) before being hired at Bowling Green. Mickens’ competitive spirit didn’t diminish after his playing days.

“He will coach you hard,” Mack said. “He will get on your case, because he cares. He wants the best for you. He pushed me to limits beyond what I could have even thought of as a player because he expected the best out of me. So he coached me that way. When I messed up, he let me know. But he also coached me to help me get better.”

Mack, a walk-on, played in only five games and recorded two tackles in Mickens’ first season at Bowling Green in 2014. The following year, Mack played in all 14 games and started the final 12 of his redshirt junior season. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound cornerback led the team with six interceptions and received a scholarship that December.

Everyone had a chance at playing time in Mickens’ cornerback group. He didn’t play favorites.

“Coach Mickens was the one coach that everyone in our room liked,” Mack said. “No matter if you were the starter or second and third string, everyone liked coach Mickens.”

Though Mickens’ coaching style was described as intense and hard-nosed by Mack and Jefferies, he showed a willingness to change his approach depending on the player. Mickens would yell at a player if he knew that would resonate with him. He was also willing to have one-on-one conversations later if that worked better.

“He’s an extremely hard coach that demands a lot,” Jefferies said. “I would almost say he’s a perfectionist. Like any coach, there were times when I hated him. Then a couple days later, we’re talking in his office and we’re laughing and we’re friends again.

“I always tell everyone the relationship I had to coach Mickens wasn’t like a player-coach. We talked as if we were equals and we were friends, which I think is important.”

University of Cincinnati assistant coach Mike Mickens, left, is in line to become Notre Dame’s new cornerbacks coach.

Handling inexperience

In the first game of his Bowling Green career, Cam Jefferies allowed a 25-yard touchdown pass. The freshman cornerback was beaten by Ohio State wide receiver Noah Brown on a throw delivered by quarterback J.T. Barrett.

The touchdown gave Ohio State a 28-10 lead in the second quarter. Jefferies, who considered Ohio State his dream school, went to the sideline dejected.

“As soon as I got to the sideline,” Jefferies said, “the phone rang and I picked up the phone and (Mickens) goes, ‘You know my first game I got scored on twice versus Penn State.’ He’s like, ‘The only thing that you can do to get over it is to go back out there and play.’”

Mickens might have been stretching the truth slightly or Jefferies may have misremembered the story. But Mickens did play at Penn State in the second game of his Cincinnati career. Penn State quarterback Michael Robinson threw three touchdowns in the 42-24 Penn State victory.

Bowling Green fared worse. The Buckeyes blew out the Falcons to a tune of 77-10 with Barrett throwing six touchdown passes. But the lesson from Mickens resonated and gave Jefferies confidence.

Jefferies barely played cornerback at all in high school. He primarily played offense and chased the football on defense from the middle of the field. Yet he played in all 12 games and started five times with 18 tackles and three pass breakups.

“Coming in, it was a big shock for me and a huge learning curve,” Jefferies said. “If I was anywhere else, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. Part of me still says I don’t even know if I was ready … I don’t think if I had any other coach, I would have been able to play my freshman year at all.”

Mickens has proven adept at coaching freshman cornerbacks. In 2014, freshmen Nick Johnson (five) and Clint Stephens (four) led the Falcons in interceptions. Last season, Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner landed on multiple Freshman All-America teams after starting the final six games, recording 31 tackles, eight pass breakups and three interceptions and not allowing a touchdown all season.

Gardner became the first Cincinnati player to return multiple interceptions for a touchdown in a season since Mickens did it in 2007.

Mickens will once again be working with plenty of inexperience in his first season at Notre Dame. The Irish are slated to have six scholarship cornerbacks with freshman eligibility on the 2020 roster. That includes sophomores KJ Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford and Cam Hart, who all played fewer than five games last season.

The only starting experience on the projected depth chart belongs to sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy.

“I’m assuming the talent that they have even as young players is there,” Mack said. “Now it becomes how do you craft your skill set and how do you become students of the game. Coach Mickens is good at that.”

Soon those players will learn Mickens’ three staples to cornerback play: play fast, play with great effort and play violent. Jefferies expects Mickens’ impact to be felt beyond the cornerback position too.

“He’s probably one of the most intense coaches that will be on that staff, and I don’t even know the staff. But I can tell you that,” Jefferies said. “He’s going to bring a mentality and change that whole corners room, probably the safeties room and probably affect the whole defense with his aggressive nature. He wants to be up in everyone’s grill and challenge everything.”

Mack, who currently works for H2O Church at Bowling Green, isn’t familiar with Notre Dame’s roster. But even though the cornerback position stands as one of the biggest questions marks for the Irish in 2020, he expects Mickens to quickly find his footing and help his players find their ceilings.

“Him being at Notre Dame is not even a shock to me. I’m excited for him,” Mack said. “He’s going to do amazing as a corners coach with the higher levels of competition and the good talent that Notre Dame will be bringing in at the corner spot.

“Don’t be surprised if you see a few guys that really get big-time shots at the league as he’s a coach that’s pointing them in the right direction and teaching them the things they need to be the best.”

Cam Jefferies followed cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens from Bowling Green to Cincinnati by graduate transferring out of Bowling Green after only two years.