Analysis: Notre Dame's patient and persistent process paid off with key CB addition

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Before Nick McCloud’s January plunge into the transfer portal was 24 hours old, the Notre Dame football staff had already digested two of his NC State game tapes and started to amass background info.

The more people they talked to about the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Wolfpack captain and the more they got to know him personally, the less he felt like a contingency and the more he projected as an asset.

Notre Dame’s process in landing a verbal commitment Monday from a player it passed on the first time — understandably in favor of Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride Jr. and All-American Julian Love in the 2016 recruiting cycle — speaks loudly and profoundly.

About defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s vision, new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens’ doggeness and, particularly, how defensive backs coach Terry Joseph has become an unassuming but undeniable force on the recruiting trail.

And about whatever the 2020 college football season looks like and when it starts, Irish head coach Brian Kelly hasn’t lost sight of the notion that this may be the strongest overall roster of his 11 since coming to South Bend.

He’s not about to let the uncertainty about specifics out of his control ruin what is.

McCloud’s addition as a grad transfer addresses the position group on the 2020 Irish roster that has been laden with the most uncertainty and fewest absolutes since ND clobbered Iowa State, 33-9, in the Camping World Bowl, Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla.

With 36 career games and 21 starts at NC State, he has more experience than any other cornerback on the Irish roster, including sixth-year returnee Shaun Crawford — by 12 games and 10 starts.

Six of the existing eight corners on the roster have freshman eligibility, either as redshirts or as true freshmen.

McCloud also has length the two projected starters at the moment, the 5-9 Crawford and 5-11 junior TaRiq Bracy, don’t have. And while he doesn’t possess the elite speed of say recently graduated track and field moonlighter Pride, McCloud’s 20 career pass breakups hint at strong technique.

That total, incidentally, had it occurred at ND, would put him among the school’s top 10 in career PBUs. And actually one of them did occur in South Bend.

McCloud broke up a would-be touchdown from Brandon Wimbush to Kevin Stepherson in a 2017 Wolfpack loss at Notre Dame Stadium in 2017, though the then-sophomore yielded one as well in the 35-14 Irish victory.

He did not see action as a freshman in ND’s “hurricane” loss in Raleigh the season before.

He also didn’t see much action last season, which is why McCloud had a fifth year to go exploring other options as a grad transfer. He played in the Wolfpack’s 2019 season opener against East Carolina, then missed the next seven games with a knee injury.

He returned to start against eventual national runner-up Clemson on Nov. 9, but reinjured the knee in that game and was shut down for the balance of NC State’s 4-8 season.

That was followed by a mass turnover in the Wolfpack’s assistant coaching ranks.

His sustained recovery from that knee injury was an important component in ND’s growing interest over the past four months. So too was the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the younger Irish corners’ development.

Redshirt freshmen Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace and converted wide receiver Cam Hart, and early enrolled freshmen Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord missed 14 of the 15 scheduled spring practices because of their eventual cancellation.

Cornerback Clarence Lewis, who was to arrive on campus in June to start his freshman year, theoretically, is as far along as at least Henderson and Offord.

On Friday, Notre Dame is expected to announce whether its second term of summer classes, beginning July 6, will move from an online model back to an on-campus format. If it does and the NCAA sees fit, there could be some wiggle room to work on some player-development skills.

The more likely scenario is the time ND spends readying for the season once the team does reconvene, conditioning will heavily trump X’s and O’s — making McCloud potentially that more valuable.

Even though the NCAA has allowed meeting time via Zoom conference calls, between position coaches and players, the emphasis in the virtual world through those and voluntary workouts has been on maintaining weight, strength and conditioning.

For those concerned with the scholarship math, per usual Notre Dame is not at the NCAA maximum of 85 at this time of year and may yet add another grad transfer in this cycle. The date the Irish have to be compliant is the first day of fall-semester classes, Aug. 25.

A grad transfer still in play is Stanford running back Trevor Speights, who was recruited to play for the Cardinal out of Memorial High School in McAllen, Texas, by current ND running backs coach Lance Taylor.

The 5-11, 203-pounder reportedly is down to Rice and ND as his next destination. With McCloud’s addition, though, the Irish will have to double check the numbers to make sure it can take a fourth grad transfer in this cycle.

That would give ND as many grad transfers this offseason (McCloud, Speights, Ohio State safety Isaiah Pryor and Northwestern wide receiver Ben Skowronek) as it amassed collectively over the previous six offseasons, with cornerback Cody Riggs in 2014 being the first and, to date, the most successful.

As was the case with McCloud, Speights’ experience factor becomes magnified with the lost spring practices due to the pandemic.

McCloud played his high school football at South Carolina perennial state power South Pointe in Rock Hill, and was a part of the school’s 2014 and 2015 state championship teams.

Of the three-star prospect’s 18 scholarship offers, only a third of them came from Power 5 schools — NC State, Kansas State, Northwestern, UCLA, Vanderbilt and West Virginia.

He developed faster and more completely, though, than projected at NC State, and he’s been promised nothing but an opportunity at ND.

If McCloud can stay healthy — and that’s been a problem for all but Riggs among ND’s previous grad transfers — count on that opportunity turning into something significant with the Irish.

ndpractice08112018 13.jpgNotre Dame defensive backs coach Terry Joseph (right) had a significant hand in securing the Monday verbal commitment of impending grad transfer cornerback Nick McCloud.