Words and work matter to Notre Dame sophomore cornerback Jaden Mickey
SOUTH BEND ― Common ground sometimes is found along the most unlikely of avenues.
Take last week as Notre Dame football wound down spring practice on a day for cornerbacks to meet media. Among the post-practice talkers was sophomore Jaden Mickey, who enrolled early in January 2022, earned a spot in the rotation and finished with nine tackles in 11 games. He's also just a kid, having celebrated his 18th birthday in September.
Normally, Mickey would have nothing in common with the gaggle of reporters who are at least twice his age. Some are three times. He's from the Inland Empire region of Southern California (Eastvale), so this whole business about accepting snow in April — snow in general — is a bit much to manage. He plays college football at the highest level for arguably the most storied program in the country. No local writer can say the same to any of that.
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There seemingly was even less in common as Mickey talked in football lingo. He spoke of technique, of coverages, of learning to use his hands less when it comes to checking wide receivers. He talked about always carrying a confidence that he belongs on the football field, whether at Ohio State where he played his first game as a true freshman or at USC, where he made his first start.
As Mickey spoke, reporters nodded like they knew what he was saying, like they could relate. Then they could as the conversation turned to a topic in every reporter’s wheelhouse — writing.
A finance major for a minute, Mickey has since switched to psychology because he’s “really into people and how people work.” He spent part of his freshman year at Notre Dame writing and publishing a book. “The Win Isn’t Always on the Scoreboard” tells the tale of an eighth grader named “J” (coincidence?) and the struggles he faces in athletics and in life when his family moves. The middle schooler has to figure out what it all means and where he fits.
“A lot of people read it with their kids,” Mickey said. “It has a lot of life lessons that I learned and sometimes you don’t always understand as a kid, but you grow up and understand it.”
As the conversation turned toward writing, Mickey’s company-line demeanor changed. It wasn’t about operating out there on the island that is corner or what kind of coverage is key to play. It wasn’t about technique or tempo or footwork.
It was about putting thoughts and words and feelings to paper for others to see. That’s something every writer can relate to doing. Mickey’s never been asked/required/expected to grind out a 900-word column on a tight deadline (that’s for us hacks to handle), but he does know what it’s like to sit at his laptop with only the cursor blinking back.
The screen then fills with words that flow and hopefully resonate to someone somewhere.
“Somebody takes what you say, takes what you write down and really uses it to their advantage, it’s definitely useful,” Mickey said. “You can change somebody’s life with just one quote.”
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Corner no place for a lack of confidence
A backup to veteran Cam Hart at boundary corner, the 5-foot-11½, 177-pound Mickey’s not yet reached a place where every quote offered is gold. Just the opposite. He's more content with letting his play on the field do the talking than anything he might say to the media. No bulletin board material going up in opposing locker rooms on Mickey's watch. He doesn’t stray from the company line, but it’s not hard to see that he’s a confident kid, even for his youth.
He’s got a swagger, for sure. Where does that confidence come from?
“My faith,” he said. “You’re not playing for the people around you. You’re playing for God. As (last) season went on, I felt like I really honed in on that and I was able to really get my comfort level. As a DB, you’ve always got to believe you belong.”
Mickey’s confidence was shaken in the Saturday night opener when he was beat by Xavier Johnson for the go-ahead touchdown in the loss to then-No. 2 Ohio State. He spent the rest of the regular season building it back up, believing in his ability and perfecting his craft, until he made that first start on a Saturday night in Los Angeles.
It didn’t go well. He looked like a freshman against a talented group of pass catchers/play makers and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. It wasn’t the way Mickey wanted to show out back home for the first time, but he owned it.
“I definitely played a little … I would say I wasn’t as aggressive as I could have been,” he said. “My first start, freshman year, I had a lot of playing experience, but I was still a freshman. It was a good learning experience.”
The game helped Mickey grow up. The rest of the cornerbacks have as well. It’s a veteran room, one that believes can be a strength of this year’s team after being shaky/suspect last season. Mickey’s older. Classmate Benjamin Morrison (an All-American last season) is older. Mickey believes everyone’s better “being comfortable out there and playing a child’s game with grown-man integrity.”
Now that's a keeper quote.
Mickey may only be 18 but knows he can't carry himself like a kid. Not in this game. Not at this level. Here, you must grow up fast and deliver with tackles and pass breakups and interceptions or someone charging up the depth chart will swipe your spot.
Mickey plays with a security of who he is and what he can do.
“He goes about his business every day and works hard,” cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens said of Mickey. “He’s a very competitive person, which I love about him. He wants to win every rep.
“That’s what you want in a mindset in a corner — that he can make every play.”
Monday in Northern Indiana dawned sunny and crisp with a scattered late-April freeze. It felt just like a day last week and a day the week before, but everything about it was different for Mickey. As he woke, he would realize that for the first time since late March, his week wouldn’t include anything football. No meetings. No practice. No scrimmages. No anything.
Coming clear of Saturday’s Blue-Gold game — he intercepted a Tyler Buchner fade throw in a 24-0 Gold win — Mickey wasn’t very happy about having spring practice in the rearview.
“I love football, so the best part of spring is spring football,” Mickey said. “All of it. Going back to summer workouts is not really football. Leaving the football part out of it for a little bit definitely is a little sad.”
It’s time for the student-athlete to be a student for a couple more weeks. Final exams are closing in, which means Mickey will be required to submit a paper or two in his course work. What’s easier — writing a paper for class or writing a book?
“They both involve the same type of thinking,” he said. “You definitely have to dive deep on every subject you’re writing about.”
Mickey gets it. Gets us. We’ve both been there. Common ground covered. Common ground shared.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.