Ladies and gentlemen, we have arrived at perhaps the biggest question mark on the team, cornerback! A good case could be made that wide receiver is an even bigger question, but it’s inarguable that corner is at least in the top two, with little clarity going into the 2021 off-season.
Before we get into the full breakdown of the position, there is something to keep in mind. Here are the positions we saw as major question marks heading into each of the last four seasons:
- 2017 Defensive Line- turned out to be a strength on the heels of Tillery, Okwara, and Kareem making big leaps
- 2018 Safeties- turned out to be a strength with Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman making big leaps
- 2019 Linebackers- turned out to be a strength with Asmar Bilal and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah making big leaps
- 2020 Running Backs- turned out to be a strength with Kyren Williams making a big leap
This off course does not make it a guarantee that the corners will be a strength in 2021, but Notre Dame does have a pretty good track record of solving what we think are big problems heading into each season. So that’s something to keep in mind.
Notre Dame Corners Leaving
- Nick McCloud– 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, eight passes broken up, one interception
- Isaiah Rutherford– Appeared against South Florida, no stats accumulated
The big loss from a production standpoint is McCloud, who started every game on the boundary and had a nice season. He was a one-year starter for the Irish as a grad transfer from NC State but was a multi-year starter for the Wolfpack as well. He brought size, experience, and leadership to the position with no obvious replacement behind him. It would have been very nice if he opted to return for a sixth season, though that was never expected.
Rutherford leaves after his second season in the program having not made an impact in either of his first two seasons. Rutherford transferred to Arizona over the winter break, where he will have three years of eligibility remaining. A former four-star recruit out of California, Rutherford was never able to make noise in the two-deep for the Irish secondary.
Notre Dame Corners Returning
- TaRiq Bracy (two years remaining)- 76 career tackles, two tackles for loss, 10 passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles
- Cam Hart (4) – three tackles, two passes defensed
- Ramon Henderson (4) – special teams contributor
- Clarence Lewis (4) – 33 tackles, one tackle for loss, seven passes broken up, one forced fumble
- Caleb Offord (4) – redshirt
The drop in play from junior corner TaRiq Bracy was one of the biggest mysteries of the 2020 season and how he looks in the offseason will be a key storyline. Bracy was never seen as a player who would be dominant, but he was always solid and a player who could be counted on in big games. He played a ton of football in 2018 and 2019. He started off the 2020 season in similar fashion and then just fell apart. He began poorly against Clemson in the first matchup, giving up three receptions, including a long touchdown, in the first quarter and was eventually pulled. He was given a second chance until the North Carolina game, which started similarly to the Clemson contest, and was again pulled and eventually became virtually unplayable. Finding his form again will be key for the secondary in 2021.
The breakout star was freshman Clarence Lewis, whom Brian Kelly compared to KeiVarae Russell in fall camp. He finished tied for 5th on the team in tackles while breaking up seven passes. Very big things will be expected of the true sophomore going into the 2021 season with where he will eventually play still up in the air. He gives the Irish a chance to be good at corner, though, and is a very important building block.
Offord, Henderson, and Hart go into the off-season needing to make big strides towards being key players on defense next year. Henderson and Hart both saw the field some last year, with Hart getting the action on defense, but all three have lots to prove to new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.
Incoming Notre Dame Corners
- Philip Riley- #304 overall, early entree
- Ryan Barnes- #561 overall, early entree
- Chance Tucker- #568 overall
- JoJo Johnson- #709 overall
Let’s start with Riley and Barnes since they are both currently on campus as early enrollees and coincidentally the two highest-rated. Most analysts see Riley as the most versatile of all the incoming corners. He can play the field or the boundary, in the slot, or even at safety. He’s physical, he can run, he’s got adequate size and can tackle. It’s this versatility that can be the key to him getting on the field quickly (as well as him being an early entrant.)
Barnes has terrific size and length, and the general consensus was a quick ascent in the recruiting rankings was coming once he got on the field for his senior season, something that never happened. Because of his size he’s talked about a lot as a safety candidate, though that is more conjecture amongst analysts and nothing we’ve heard from the staff.
Tucker and Johnson are the elite athletes of the group, with a lot of buzz around both players. If Riley and Barnes are seen as the most ready, these two have the most upside, with Tucker being an accomplished sprinter in Southern California, and Johnson being a dynamic receiver who was originally committed to Marcus Freeman at Cincinnati.
Given the material Notre Dame has to work with at corner, and incoming defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, it’s very hard for me to get worked up over the uncertainty at corner, even though such concerns are valid. Bracy and Lewis can both play, they have elite athletes in Ramon Henderson, Chance Tucker, and JoJo Johnson, they have tremendous size with Cam Hart, Caleb Offord, and Ryan Barnes, and they have versatility with Philip Riley and Johnson. These are the types of players coaches like Freeman and Mike Mickens can and have won with.
There is the question of upside; I doubt this is a group that can be dominant, at least next season. But, it is certainly a group they can win with, and can even be a strength as the season plays out. As for early guesses, I’d put Clarence Lewis to the boundary (if they are even still doing field/boundary thing), with Bracy to the field, and I’d watch out for Henderson, Hart, and Riley to make waves in the two-deep. Riley’s versatility and competitiveness are going to be utilized early, in my opinion, and I’ve always been intrigued by Henderson. So Lewis, Bracy, Henderson, Hart, and Riley will be the guys I see emerging on this day in early February.