Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens continues hot streak by landing Ryan Barnes' commitment

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Ryan Barnes had known Mike Mickens for approximately one month, yet he felt comfortable predicting the future of the new Notre Dame cornerbacks coach.

“He definitely seems like he fits and is comfortable there. I know that he knows what he’s talking about,” the Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard cornerback told the Tribune in April. “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 hiring him. He’s going to be great there.”

In the two months since Barnes offered his approval, Mickens seems to have only proven him right from a recruiting perspective. Four-star corner Philip Riley pledged to Notre Dame last month despite having never visited campus. N.C. State corner Nick McCloud then committed to a grad transfer and projects as a plug-and-play option this season.

Barnes’ comments came full circle Saturday when he committed to Notre Dame on Saturday, announcing the news via Twitter. Mickens’ productivity so far hardly feels like he joined the Irish coaching staff from the University of Cincinnati late into the 2021 recruiting cycle.

“The talent pool wasn’t there,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, “because when (Mickens) got there, more than half of the top defensive backs were already gone. He didn’t start from scratch. When he got there, even in March most of the players are already committed. Or at least they are already looking at schools (hard). He was up against it, and he came up with two four-star defensive backs.”

Mickens may not receive much recognition for landing Barnes, a three-star corner per 247Sports and Rivals. 247Sports ranks Barnes as its No. 34 corner and No. 439 overall player in the class, while Rivals pegs him No. 55 at the position.

But Barnes has long been under consideration to receive a significant rankings boost once recruiting analysts can hold in-person evaluations again. At 6-foot-2, 180-pounds, Barnes brings length, athleticism, a 38-inch vertical jump and position versatility. Michigan, Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Florida State were among schools to offer him a scholarship.

Riley earned a bump in the recruiting rankings. 247Sports listed him as its No. 31 corner and No. 469 overall player in the class. Now he’s No. 14 at the position and No. 214 overall. A similar ascension could happen for Barnes, a four-star safety to Lemming.

“He’s solid in transition,” Lemming said. “He’s an effective press-cover (defense) man. He gets in his opponent’s hip pocket and stays there. He reacts well to the ball, is excellent in run support, takes good angles to the ball and can take on and shed (blockers) quickly. He’s got long arms and quick feet. So I like him. He’s a good catch for Notre Dame.”

Defensive line coach Mike Elston and director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney initiated contact with Barnes in December. Then head coach Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Clark Lea, defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph, special teams coordinator Brian Polian and Mickens collaborated with pursuing Barnes.

Joseph offered Barnes on March 25, the same day Riley accrued his Irish offer. Mickens’ involvement made a difference, Barnes said. He told the Tribune in April that no assistant coach at other schools provided more insightful feedback about scheme and technique than Mickens.

The message that Barnes could play any position in the secondary also resonated with him.

“We’ve built a relationship and a bond through communication and on the phone,” Barnes said of Mickens, “whether it’s about football, family or just what we are doing. Being able to just have conversations with him and not just a quick, ‘Hey.’ I always like the coaches who are able to actually communicate and have conversation.”

When Barnes enrolls a semester early in January, he will reunite with his grandparents. They live approximately 50 miles southeast of South Bend near Winona Lake, Ind. Barnes trekked to Notre Dame’s campus on multiple occasions while visiting his family throughout childhood — one reason he cited for why he grew up as an Irish football fan.

Connecting with Mickens and feeling like a priority to the coaching staff were among factors that helped Barnes embrace his fandom. The Irish hold 11 commits in a class that now ranks No. 11 and No. 15 nationally on Rivals and 247Sports, respectively.

“They just checked off all of my boxes: the athletics, the academics and then the alumni base they have,” Barnes said. “Those were the things I was looking for, and Notre Dame excels in all three. Finding that feeling is why I made that decision. I really felt that Notre Dame was the place for me.”

Notre Dame catching college football’s elite programs like Alabama and Clemson begins on the recruiting trail. Lemming said the Irish upgraded their recruiting prowess by adding Mickens. His predecessor, Todd Lyght, signed only four corners in five recruiting classes who were ranked in the top 20 at their position on either Rivals or 247Sports: Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. in 2016, Houston Griffith (now a safety) in 2018 and Isaiah Rutherford in 2019.

Lyght failing to sign a corner in the 2017 class after losing verbal commitments from Paulson Adebo (Stanford) and Elijah Hicks (California) left Notre Dame lacking depth and experience at the position after last season.

Now one of Notre Dame’s biggest position needs continues to be replenished. To Lemming, Mickens is only getting started.

“Give it a full year, and I think Mickens will do even better in 2022,” Lemming said. “Notre Dame fans should be anxious to see this guy with a full year to recruit. I would imagine that the defensive backs that he brings in 2022 could be five-stars. He has a chance.

“Some coaches can never recruit a five-star player just because of who they are. He can recruit a five-star player. He has the potential to be a five-star recruiter.

“Ohio State and LSU are the vanguard when it comes to recruiting great defensive backs. I think Mickens, with Notre Dame behind him, has that potential to get guys that LSU and Ohio State get.”

Gaithersburg (Md.) Quince Orchard’s Ryan Barnes, a defensive back in the 2021 recruiting class, landed a Notre Dame scholarship offer on March 25.