Inside the mind of Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and his blueprint for success
More fascinating than what the plight that Mike Mickens willingly walked into looks like from the outside peering in is the blueprint that’s already rolled out and functioning.
Marcus Freeman believes it will morph from functioning to thriving in the coming weeks and months for the first-year Notre Dame cornerbacks coach, because that’s not only how Mickens has done business, but it’s kind of who he’s always been at his core.
Freeman, the defensive coordinator at mid-majors bruiser Cincinnati, has watched it up close — even co-conspired — on a couple of occasions, including the past two seasons when the 33-year-old Mickens was UC’s cornerbacks coach.
Together they helped the Bearcats to top 15 finishes nationally in pass-efficiency defense and top 25 showings in scoring defense in both seasons. Before their collaboration, UC ranked 113th and 94th, respectively in 2017.
The two were also teammates at Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, near Dayton, more than a decade and a half ago.
Freeman, a year ahead in school and a linebacker, was a Parade All-American and the No. 31 player overall nationally in the 2004 recruiting class, per Rivals.com. College coaches gushed over him, and he ended up picking Ohio State over Notre Dame at the end of his recruiting process.
“I absolutely loved Notre Dame and I loved (then-ND coach) Tyrone Willingham,” Freeman offered. “If I didn’t go to Ohio State, that’s for sure where I was going to go.”
Mickens, a spindly cornerback at the time by his own admission, was largely an afterthought instead of a revelation when schools came to scout Freeman. He peaked as a two-star recruit his senior season, when Freeman was starting his OSU career.
What happened next wasn’t the well-worn, chip-on-the-shoulder saga. Mickens was already plenty driven.
Driven to be a freshman starter under Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati, the only non-MAC school that offered him a scholarship, then burgeoning into an All-American and Thorpe Award finalist under Dantonio’s UC successor, Brian Kelly — whom Mickens would reunite with at Notre Dame this past February after acing the job interview.
What he unlocked along the way was the formula to make both an early and lasting impact as a college player, and to be able to teach and inspire others to do the same. Further down the road Mickens added the ability to recognize talent — even when it wasn’t obvious, like in his own recruiting experience.
“He’s got instant credibility, because he did it,” Freeman said. “I think he coaches his guys the way he played. He’s not a flashy guy. He’s a tough, get-after-it, we’re going to play with passion and be aggressive, and very confident.
“And I can see it in the guys that he coaches. They have that same mindset. He instills it into their mind, ‘Hey we’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to be confident. And this is the way we’re going to play.’ I think he does a great job of building trust.
“I think you can only push guys as far as you can trust them, and that’s the No. 1 thing. He builds trust within a room. And I think that’s why he can get those guys to play at such a high level at a young age.”
Mickens will get to test just how transferable that skill set is right away at Notre Dame.
Though the Irish ranked sixth and fifth in the nation, respectively, in pass-efficiency defense the past couple of seasons, the cornerback position has mostly felt fragile during Kelly’s first 10 seasons at ND.
Five of the 29 decommitments in the first 11 recruiting cycles of the Kelly Era at ND have been cornerbacks, including Stanford All-American Paulson Adebo. Eight cornerbacks have transferred out.
The Irish have never lured a five-star corner in the Rivals.com Era (2002-present) and have signed just one cornerback prospect — Shaun Crawford in 2015 — who was either in the top 10 of his position nationally, per Rivals, or a top 100 player overall since Tee Shepard in 2012.
And Shepard never played a down at ND.
There was impressive player development by Mickens’ predecessor, former Irish All-American Todd Lyght. But when the COVID-19 pandemic took over American life in March, cornerback was the position group that most separated the Irish from realistic playoff aspirations.
Having 14 spring practices canceled and perpetually talking to squares on a laptop screen via Zoom hasn’t provided much opportunity to close that gap.
Six of the nine cornerbacks with whom Mickens starts training camp this month have as many high-leverage college snaps as Mickens’ 4-year-old daughter Millie.
Sixth-year grad senior Crawford has made it through one college season without missing multiple games due to injury. Junior TaRiq Bracy’s skills are improving, but his strength gains have been stagnant in his first two years on campus.
NC State grad transfer Nick McCloud is intriguing, but he’s coming off a knee injury.
And Mickens just can’t stop smiling, because he sees and believes in what the group can be.
“A lot of them have inexperience, just as far as playing time and game time,” he said, “but what I love about the makeup of these guys is their competitiveness, the way they handle their business day to day, the maturity.
“They want to be great, and they want to be coached. And when you have those tools, it lends to the making of a good room. I’m very excited about all of them and very excited about getting them going and getting to work with them.”
On the trail
After the Irish whiffed at the top tier of cornerbacks in the 2020 recruiting cycle, three years after not signing a single one, Kelly pushed for a different kind of Plan B this time.
Instead of reaching for more polished cornerback prospects who were lacking speed, size or both, Kelly wanted to push for promising, multi-position athletes who were far from plug-and-play college corners but who had the athleticism and length to stoke visions of high ceilings.
The Irish signed four — Ramon Henderson, Clarence Lewis, Caleb Offord and Landen Bartleson. Offord and Henderson arrived in January as early enrollees. Lewis and grad transfer McCloud, a May commitment, came to campus in mid-June.
Bartleson was released from his National Letter of Intent by ND after being arrested Jan. 24 in Danville, Ky., on charges of burglary, criminal mischief and receiving stolen property over $10,000.
Mickens’ presence on the staff may redirect Notre Dame to raise its expectations again on the recruiting trail, though star ratings aren’t what initially catches his eye or guides his process.
A track and field background is something that does. And the former Ohio 300-meter hurdles state champ isn’t just after the raw speed, but also a certain mindset that tends to come with track athletes.
“One of the first questions I ask is, ‘What’s his speed like?’” Mickens said. “But running track also shows me he’s confident in his ability to compete one-on-one.
“Football is very much a team game, but track makes you come out of your element a little bit, your comfort zone, and makes you compete one-on-one and just go out there and control your speed.
“I relate that to corner. A lot of the times you are in one-on-one situations, and you have to be confident in yourself and your ability to be able to make a play.”
He looks for the kind of drive he had as a player — to overcome, to ask questions, to not wilt under Mickens’ on-field intensity, to want to be great.
“If they’re competitive in every aspect of their life and they just want to win,” Mickens said, “they will end up putting in the work to get down the techniques, get down the defense, things of that nature. That helps them accelerate faster.
“Mental makeup matters. I think when you accept being coached, the outcome happens faster.”
Three cornerback prospects in the 2021 recruiting cycle already have bought in, all without taking an official or unofficial recruiting visit to ND, though Chance Tucker made the trek from Encino, Calif., last month to tour campus without an escort or getting to meet anyone associated with the team, per NCAA dead-period rules.
Fellow corner commits Ryan Barnes of Gaithersburg, Md., and Philip Riley of Valrico, Fla., are further along in their football development. In a year when the pandemic is severely limiting evaluative windows to move up in the star system, Riley is the most underrated of the three, based on film study.
There’s a growing number of observers who believe he might be the second-best prospect in the Irish class, behind only quarterback Tyler Buchner, and ahead of borderline five-star offensive lineman Blake Fisher, among others.
“I didn’t know him really as a recruiter,” Kelly said of who Mickens became, as a coach, after his playing days with Kelly were over at the end of the 2008 season. “But I knew him as a person and I knew his philosophy. And those were the two things that attracted me the most.
“And then he did a great job of taking who he is as a person and letting it shine in recruiting. He’s developed great relationships because he’s genuine. He’s a real guy and that’s what I love about him.”
By all accounts, Mickens was going to be an NFL first-round draft choice after an All-America junior season until he sustained a left knee injury in practice in late November of his senior year at UC.
He dropped all the way to the seventh round in the spring, with the Dallas Cowboys taking a chance on him. He bounced around the NFL and Canadian Football League for a couple of seasons, but the knee — and thus his elite speed — were never the same.
“My competitiveness got me back fast and in the right mindset,” Mickens said. “But my knee didn’t respond to that.
“The way I look at it now is at the end of the day, it allows me in coaching to let players know that, ‘Play each play like it’s your last. You never know. Leave it out there and never have any regrets on anything.’
“That’s how I approached the game when I played, and I have no regrets of how my career ended up. I’m glad that I get this opportunity to be able to teach these young men and give them my experience of playing. And I think this is what God called me to do.”
So in 2011, his coaching career started at his alma mater, then flowed to Indiana State, Idaho, Bowling Green, back to Cincy and finally to Notre Dame.
Freeman’s NFL career was even shorter. An enlarged heart truncated it after just one season, and nudged him into coaching.
“When we were in high school, we never talked about or dreamed about ending up in coaching,” Freeman said. “But it feels like this is what we were meant to do. It’s been fun to watch his career rise to where it’s at now. I’m not surprised one bit.
“He’s a guy who can make you laugh, a guy you can trust, and he’s one of those guys who are energy providers. He’s a guy that no matter how my day is, he’s going to be a positive guy and provide energy for all of us.”
It’s certainly a welcome commodity as they both face the most uncertain chapters of their respective careers, because the pandemic — and the U.S. response to it — dictates that.
Will this be the season for the Irish? Will there be a season — period? Will Mickens have to go back to coaching via webcam at some point? Will he be able to touch his dreams?
“I don’t really think about how much is unknown about the future,” Mickens said. “I focus on the task at hand, day-to-day stuff. I just worry about today.
“How can I be better today than yesterday? It’s all part of the process. I want to enjoy the process, and I don’t want to cheat the process.
“I’ve always been taught that you cheat yourself when you look forward. So I’m going to make the best of and enjoy today.”