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Notre Dame Football Position Preview: Cornerbacks and Board Games

Family game night could get heated this season...

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Wisconsin Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame’s cornerback position is an odd assortment this season. There are young players with plenty of hype and little proven production as well as proven veterans with some worrisome performances on their ledgers.

With Ohio State, Clemson and a transfer-infused USC now on the schedule, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has his work cut out for him to have his position group ready to go wire to wire. So, to break it down further, here are the 2022 Irish corners as popular family board games.

No. 5 Cam Hart — “Monopoly”

Wisconsin v Notre Dame Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Hart feels like the only Notre Dame cornerback whose spot is unchallenged. In that sense, he has a monopoly on secure starting jobs.

The converted wide receiver took over as a starter last season and showed quite a bit of promise. Now entering his senior year, He’ll will have to take another step forward, especially with the upgrade in top-tier wide receiving talent the Irish will face compared to last season’s schedule. That means expanding on his nine pass breakups and two interceptions from 2020.

It’s unclear how much Hart’s production last season was hamstrung by a lingering shoulder injury. He missed a good chunk of this spring after an offseason procedure to fix that issue, and his newly cleaned-up shoulder will get a trial by fire against Ohio State’s wide receiving corps in the season opener.

No. 6 Clarence Lewis — “Risk”

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Oklahoma State at Notre Dame Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s address the elephant in them room, shall we? Clarence Lewis’ Fiesta Bowl performance was atrocious. Oklahoma State receiver Tay Martin recorded 10 receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns in a game where Lewis was his primary defender. So the perception from many fans is that Lewis’ continued presence in the starting lineup is a risk.

Maybe there’s some credence to that opinion. Maybe there isn’t. All reports are that Lewis has had a very good offseason, and what he has said about his disaster of a bowl game indicates that he is mentally tough enough to put it behind him. (Keep in mind that TaRiq Bracy’s own mental funk led to Lewis becoming a true freshman starter on a Notre Dame team that made the College Football Playoff).

But reality is that Lewis’ job is far from secure given the way true freshman Jaden Mickey has been hyped up this offseason. Many Irish fans will probably be calling for Mickey to replace Lewis before the first quarter clock hits zero against Ohio State. That’s unlikely to happen on Sept. 3, but before the year ends… that could be a different story.

No. 28 TaRiq Bracy — “Chutes and Ladders”

Camping World Bowl - Notre Dame v Iowa State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Bracy’s career at Notre Dame has been rocky, an up-and-down trajectory reminiscent of sliding down the chutes and toiling back up the ladders of the Irish cornerback depth chart.

His breakout came in 2019 when he broke up two passes on the road against Georgia and was generally reliable throughout the year. Then he got benched during Notre Dame’s first matchup with Clemson in 2020. After an offseason rebuilding his confidence, Bracy found a niche in nickel packages in 2021 and he figures to continue that role as a fifth-year senior this fall.

Safeties coach Chris O’Leary has dubbed Bracy the best nickel in the country. That’s high (if not biased) praise for him to live up to. But as the most experienced of the Irish cornerbacks, he’ll need to be a steadying presence in the defensive backfield at minimum.

No. 21 Jaden Mickey & No. 20 Benjamin Morrison — “Battleship”

Mickey and Morrison are both members of the 2022 class that have made waves this offseason. To put it bluntly, the pair of true freshmen seem to have already sunken the battleships of — i.e., already surpassed on the depth chart — at least two of Notre Dame’s three sophomore cornerbacks.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been no shortage of praise for Mickey coming out of this spring and summer. The early enrollee from Corona, Calif. has impressed mightily during his short time in South Bend, so much so that he’s presumably already a second-string cornerback. As alluded to above, how soon he can turn that into a starting job will be something many Irish fans have their eyes on.

Via @BMoe_21 on Twitter

As for Morrison, it’s impossible to say whether he would be in stride with or even ahead of Mickey right now if he had enrolled early. Regardless, the summer to this point has been enough time for Morrison to turn heads on the cornerback depth chart. The four-star recruit out of Phoenix may not play a significant role this season, but at this pace he should sooner rather than later in his Irish career.

No. 15 Ryan Barnes — Rock ’em, Sock ’em, Robots

Via @Bo11Ryan on Twitter

If you missed this year’s Blue-Gold Game, then you missed Riley delivering a couple of hard hits to walk-on tight ends Andrew Yanoshak and Charlie Selna. One hit on Selna actually resulted in a targeting penalty (a debatable one if you ask me), so perhaps Barnes is trying to establish a role as an enforcer at cornerback. If he’s willing to (legally) rock and sock a few opposing pass catchers, that could make a difference for the Irish throughout the season.

At 6-foot-2, Barnes is the rangiest corner on the roster aside from Hart. The former three-star recruit from Gaithersburg, Md. grew up a Notre Dame fan and can provide a physical presence uncommon to the roster. But it’s worth noting that he wasn’t even taking second-team defensive snaps in Notre Dame’s most recent fall scrimmage (Mickey, Morrison and Chance Tucker represented the corners in nickel packages).

Like the other two cornerbacks in his class, this could be a critical year for Barnes to carve out a role with Mickey and Morrison making early moves on the depth chart.

No. 25 Philip Riley & No. 18 Chance Tucker — Clue

Riley and Tucker were both highly touted recruits in the 2021 cycle. But now they’re fighting for their depth chart lives against the two true freshmen in Mickey and Morrison. At this point, fans and coaches are still looking for a clue as to what the sophomores may (or may not) be for Notre Dame down the road.

Via @Riley18Philip on Twitter

Riley was a four-star recruit who decommitted from Notre Dame in favor of archrival USC, but the Irish coaching staff managed to pull him back into the fold. He appeared in just four games as a true freshman and didn’t record any defensive stats. Aside from battling at corner, he could be a candidate to shift to safety seeing as Xavier Watts is now splitting time at wide receiver.

Via @ChanceTucker7 on Twitter

With Tucker, the chorus has always been how contested his recruitment was between Notre Dame and Washington. That’s notable because few programs have produced quality NFL defensive backs like Washington has. But Tucker didn’t appear in any contests last season and is still fighting for a second-team role. This will be a big year for both he and Riley to make a positive impression in practices if they are to avoid being cast aside by the new members at the position.

No. 23 Jayden Bellamy — Sorry!

Via @jaydenknows_ on Twitter

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Bellamy. Not only is he the third wheel in a cornerback recruiting class where the other two have already made names for themselves, but he’s not even the most talked about “Ja(y)den” of the freshman corners.

A New Jersey native, Bellamy followed his teammate and Irish freshman quarterback Steve Angeli from Bergen Catholic to South Bend. A two-way player in high school, there was some speculation that Bellamy could be moved to help take receiver reps in practice following Avery Davis’ torn ACL.

That move hasn’t happened yet since Xavier Watts’ position change took place. In any case, it seems that Bellamy will have to bide his time before making an impact for Notre Dame on either side of the ball.