Nick McCloud, Notre Dame cornerbacks trying to flip the script on history

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Riding back to the team hotel in Jacksonville, Fla., after a bowl practice, Nick McCloud pulled out his phone and watched a familiar story line unfold to one he experienced himself first-hand earlier that season.

The current Notre Dame starting cornerback was at NC State at the time, his Wolfpack team two days away from a Gator Bowl date with Texas A&M. Their dream start to the 2018 season, a five-game winning streak and No. 16 national ranking, crumbled in game 6 — a 41-7 bludgeoning at Clemson.

Roughly two months later, it was Notre Dame’s turn for a reality check. In the 30-3 victory by the Tigers in a College Football Playoff semifinal Dec. 29, 2018, one of the things Clemson exposed in a program that had successfully rebooted in 2017 and was soaring toward a new level of relevance was its cornerback depth.

“I was watching the game, because me and Troy are really close,” McCloud said this week of former ND cornerback Troy Pride Jr., who like McCloud played his high school football in South Carolina.

“I was rooting for him pretty hard.”

Saturday night Pride, now a rookie corner with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, has an opportunity to return the favor — albeit from a distance — when No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0, 5-0 ACC) and No. 1 Clemson (7-0, 6-0 ACC).

Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. EST, and NBC has the telecast for the first meeting between the Irish and a No. 1 team in Notre Dame Stadium since 2005.

“Nobody can ignore it,” McCloud said of the national buzz the game is generating, “but as far as the day-to-day basis, we’re just trying to focus on what we can do better today.”

The ability of Notre Dame’s cornerbacks, including summer grad transfer McCloud, to get better in quantum leaps and bounds since the beginning of summer workouts in mid-June is a big reason the Irish have a chance to get back to the College Football Playoff this season.

Heading into the aborted spring season, though, no position group projected more disparity from a playoff profile than the cornerbacks.

And that was particularly disappointing for Kelly, given how 2018 ended.

The Irish came into the Clemson game that season in the top five nationally in pass-efficiency defense. Consensus All-American Julian Love, though, suffered a head injury in the first quarter and had to leave the game.

When he returned to start the second half, the Irish were down 23-3. Then-freshman QB Trevor Lawrence was 15-of-18 for 244 yards and three TDs in the five series Love missed, feasting on replacement Donte Vaughn. Lawrence was 12-of-21 for 83 yards in the six series in which Love was on the field.

Lawrence, now a junior, will be a bystander Saturday night as he continues to recover from COVID-19 and the ramping up that will come after isolation. Vaunted freshman D.J. Uiagalelei will make his second career start in place of Lawrence.

Despite being a position group hit particularly hard itself by COVID, the Irish cornerbacks have helped ND back into the top 10 in the national pass-efficiency defense rankings at No. 7.

For his part, McCloud has 17 tackles, an interception and a team-high five pass breakups. Junior TaRiq Bracy, a four-time starter this season, missed one game because of COVID and one with another illness. Redshirt freshman Cam Hart, a converted wide receiver, and especially true freshman Clarence Lewis have helped fill in the gaps at key moments.

Saturday night will surely test whether one of the surprising story lines of the season will hold up, with Clemson featuring the eighth most-prolific passing offense in the FBS (341.4 ypg).

During training camp, Kelly opted to move arguably the team’s best cornerback, and certainly its most tested, sixth-year survivor Shaun Crawford to strong safety and sophomore backup KJ Wallace to a backup safety role. That left first-year cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens with only two of the remaining seven corners having taken as much as a single high-leverage college snap.

One of those two, McCloud was coming off a knee injury that turned 2019 into a medical redshirt season. He only played in two games, one of which was a 55-10 loss to Clemson in November, the last game he played in an NC State uniform.

The 6-foot-1, 192-pounder committed to the Irish in May and arrived in mid-June, the same time as one of the other bright spots in the cornerback room, Lewis.

“I really just tried to be myself when I got to campus,” McCloud said. “I didn’t really want to do too much or to try to make myself fit in, if that makes sense.

“As far as COVID, it was kind of tough — seeing everybody in masks, not seeing everybody’s faces, not being able to recognize everybody. But I feel like I meshed well with everybody once we started working out, so that made it a lot easier.”

He hadn’t worked out during the spring because he was no longer part of the NC State program and he was home quarantining without a road map to full recovery. But eventually McCloud became the plug-and-play option Kelly had hoped he'd be.

“I think it’s like anything else,” Kelly said, “when you have somebody that transfers into your program that hasn’t been with you over a period of time, there’s an acclimation, acclimatization whatever the word you want to use that fits there.

“It takes a little time. So Nick, although he had a lot of snaps, I think he really needed to get a sense and feel for what our strength and conditioning program was about. That took a little bit. Didn’t happen overnight.

“I think he’s fit in very well in terms of our culture and understanding the standards here at Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) celebrates with defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7) after intercepting against Pittsburgh on Oct. 24.