One of the big surprises from Monday’s release of the first Notre Dame depth chart for the 2020 season was the appearance of true freshman Clarence Lewis listed as an “OR” with Tariq Bracy at corner. No one expected Lewis to challenge for that kind of distinction let alone challenge Bracy, Notre Dame’s top returning corner. On Tuesday, Brian Kelly made a comparison to Lewis that speaks to why Lewis is on the two-deep to start the season.
“Comparisons are easy to make and sometimes they get taken and we run too fast and too far with them. But, we started another young man as a true freshman and his name was KeiVarae Russell,” Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. “I don’t know if Clarence has the same athletic ability in terms of raw athletic ability. KeiVarae was really a gifted athlete.”
Russell came to Notre Dame in 2012 as a wide receiver recruit but was moved to cornerback over the summer after injuries ravaged Notre Dame’s secondary. Notre Dame lost Lo Wood for the year and Jamoris Slaughter’s application for a medical hardship 6th year was denied by the NCAA leaving Notre Dame to start Russell, a true freshman, and concerted wide receiver sophomore Bennett Jackson.
Russell more than held his own in 2012 with 58 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 interceptions, and 2 pass breakups as Notre Dame’s defense powered the Irish to a 12-0 regular season. Brian Kelly thinks Lewis can play at that same level if needed this fall.
“Clarence has clearly demonstrated that, as a true freshman, we could put him on the field at the same level or possibly even higher than the level that KeiVarae had to play as a true freshman. We did pretty good that year.”
The reason for Lewis’s rapid rise up the depth chart came partly from a combination of coaching from new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, but primarily from Lewis’s raw skills and abilities.
“The cornerback position requires not only athleticism. It requires an ability to make plays when the ball is in the air, kind of a savvy and a sense, and the ability to tackle. And he brought all those,” Kelly said of Lewis.
“Certainly, we could talk about the coaching as well. Mike Mickens has done a really good job of bringing him along, but a lot of that is that Clarence has some innate ability at the position that was able to translate itself early on in his time here.”
The news of Lewis being listed right there with Bracy was the most shocking development in the depth chart. I don’t put too much stock into the odd alignment of wide receivers on the depth chart since I still remember Freddy Canteen and Cameron Smith being the “starters” in 2017. Lewis was not a highly rated recruit, however, and without open practices, there wasn’t a whole lot of scuttlebutt to come out of camp this year. In previous years, we probably would have heard about Lewis turning heads weeks ago.
If Kelly’s comparisons to Russell are even remotely accurate, Notre Dame is in much better shape at corner than most expected them to be. Depth was always going to be a concern this year due to the recruiting misses from former cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght over the last few years, but if Lewis is indeed ready to play, Notre Dame has some flexibility.
The quick development of Lewis combined with the addition of graduate transfer Nick McCloud has the cornerback position look quite a bit more solid than it looked like it would be in March.