Notre Dame football's Mickens, O'Leary provide continuity in back of Irish defensive staff

Justin Frommer
ND Insider
Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens is one of the only mainstays from Brian Kelly's coaching staff last season.

SOUTH BEND — When Marcus Freeman was hired as Notre Dame's head football coach, a strength of his staff was its potential continuity from last season's group. 

Initially, the only departures from the final year of Brian Kelly's tenure were special teams coordinator Brian Polian who joined Kelly at LSU, and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and wideouts coach Del Alexander who weren't retained.

Among the group that stayed with Freeman was Mike Mickens and Chris O'Leary, each heading into their third year as cornerbacks coach and safeties coach, respectively.

But as the days of a new Notre Dame football era turned to weeks, Mickens and O'Leary saw their assistant coach colleagues depart for other jobs. 

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Mike Elston, Notre Dame's former longest-tenured assistant coach, went back to Michigan, his alma mater. Lance Taylor, former running backs coach, became the offensive coordinator at Louisville. The same for John McNulty, who went from Irish tight ends coach to Boston College OC. 

"In this profession you don’t get used to it but grow to expect," O'Leary said on Wednesday. "Brings you back to the basis of taking care of your job, your room. Be the head coach of your unit and then let everything else fall into place. That’s what Coach Freeman preaches regardless"

Suddenly, Freeman's staff had turned over more than originally expected.

Mickens and O'Leary stuck around, and in doing so, keeping continuity in the back-end of Notre Dame's defense. 

"I think it’s great," Mickens said. "I’ve known Chris for a long time. I’ve known him since he was a player. It’s great to have a guy like that with me on the back end that I know and that I’m comfortable with. We think alike. We know what we’re trying to accomplish."

Why is that important, especially for Notre Dame's secondary?

Those positions are as "risk or reward" as any on the football field. One mistake could result in a touchdown. Being on the same page is key. And after three years working together, O'Leary and Mickens understand each other.

"We’re able to communicate openly, be honest with each other." O'Leary said. "Argue about things at times and then move on. So it was great for the guys and it was great for us, too. There’s no one I’d rather work with as a cornerbacks coach." 

Notre Dame defensive backs/safeties coach Chris O'Leary talks with reporters during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Even with the loss of All-American safety Kyle Hamilton, there seems to be plenty for Mickens and O'Leary to work with in Notre Dame's secondary. 

ND's two projected starters at cornerback, senior Cam Hart and junior Clarence Lewis, are back for the 2022 season after combining for 95 tackles and three interceptions a year ago. 

Sophomore's Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes and junior Xavier Watts all saw limited snaps in 2021. Graduate senior TaRiq Bracy and incoming freshman, Jaden Mickey and Jayden Bellamy round out a deep cornerbacks room. 

"I think we have very athletic cornerbacks," Mickens said. "Now, our technique has to improve and we have to know the whys and things of that nature. Why I’m playing this technique. Things I’m trying to get out of this technique. Things of that nature. This is what’s going to help us raise our game." 

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The same could be said for the Irish safeties. 

The big loss from a season ago was obviously Hamilton, who declared for the NFL Draft and is projected to be a top-10 pick. Freeman took a rare dip into the transfer portal and came out with former Northwestern All-American, Brandon Joseph to step into Hamilton's place.

"He’s a really good football player," O'Leary said of Joseph. "He’s quick to the ball. He’s violent. He’s aggressive. And all those things translate to making plays on Saturday." 

There is also grad senior Houston Griffith, who has played in 49 games over his four-year career, as well as Ramon Henderson, who started the last three games of the regular season, and DJ Brown, who played in a career-high 12 games last year. 

There's crossover in the secondary, too. Watts saw time at safety last year following Hamilton's season-ending injury against USC. Henderson made his first start of the year at cornerback against Virginia. That versatility is a strength heading into the season. 

"You see that at the NFL level," O'Leary said. "The biggest thing you hear when scouts talk about drafting defensive backs is how versatile he is. It’s no different at this level with slots being so dangerous and the RPOs, all that. You want guys that can cover. Track, attack, but they have to be able to cover so they have to be able to play Nickel, safety, corner." 

Freeman's final staff was addition defensive coordinator Al Golden, who will be Notre Dame's third in three seasons (Clark Lea now at Vanderbilt and Freeman's promotion). 

"Al has a lot of experience," Mickens said. "He’s been numerous places and coached a lot of ball. Adding him only enhances what we do on defense. Seeing a new perspective and a fresh look on things is always good.

"I always say there are many ways to skin a cat. That’s a great way to come in and enhance what we do."