Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 18, 2023

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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16 NOV. 18, 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY JACK SOBLE N otre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman has told this story before, but there's a reason he keeps going back to it. During the 2019 recruiting cycle, Freeman and soon-to-be Notre Dame co r n e rba c ks coa c h M i ke M i c ke n s worked together at Cincinnati. They were recruiting a player at Mickens' po- sition by the name of Ahmad Gardner. Freeman liked Gardner, but he was not, as he puts it, "standing on the table" for him. Mickens was. "Mickens said, 'This is the guy that we need here,'" Freeman recalled. "And we knew right away when he got to campus, man, he's special." Ahmad Gardner wasn't Ahmad Gard- ner for long. He took on the nickname, "Sauce," which everyone was content to call him because he was one of the best college cornerbacks of the 21st century. In three years at Cincinnati, Gardner did not allow a touchdown. He was selected No. 4 overall in the 2022 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, and many consider him the best cornerback in the league. Mickens left for the same position at Notre Dame in 2020, where Freeman joined him a year later. Before the 2023 season, Freeman gave Mickens the title of defensive passing game coordina- tor, because he believes his cornerbacks coach is ready for more. "I absolutely think Mike Mickens is ready to be a defensive coordinator," Freeman said. "He is a tremendous football coach." The results on the field speak for themselves. Notre Dame is seventh in the country in defensive passing efficiency at 5.6 opponent yards per attempt. Sopho- more cornerback Benjamin Morrison, a Mickens recruit, was a Freshman All-American and is having a stellar sophomore season. Graduate student Cam Hart has been nearly untouchable through the air this season, and when Mickens started working with him, he was a converted wide receiver coming off a season-ending shoulder injury. With both Morrison and Hart side- lined against Pittsburgh in Week 9, Notre Dame had to rely on sophomore Jaden Mickey and freshman Christian Gray, both Mickens recruits. They shut the Panthers down through the air and each corralled an interception. Mickens wasn't the only reason Gray went to Notre Dame, but he was cer- tainly a reason. "He was a hilarious, funny guy," Gray, a St. Louis De Smet graduate, said of Mickens as a recruiter. "And he was always honest. He was always honest about who he was and what he does." Once Mickens got Gray in the building, he went to work on player development. Whenever Notre Dame defensive co- ordinator Al Golden grabs lunch in the middle of a work day, he sees Mickens working with the Irish cornerbacks. They pop in and out of the office all the time, asking Mickens questions about several things. "He's committed to those kids," Golden said. "I mean, he's working all the time on their development." Mickens' specialty, Golden said, is the mental side of the game. He recruits players like Gray with superb length, Mickey with superb athleticism and MAGIC MICKENS With the job Mike Mickens has done as cornerbacks coach, Marcus Freeman believes he is ready to take the next step Mickens has shown a great eye for talent and knows how to develop it, and he also possesses great schematic acumen. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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