Mickens Makes Move to Reunite With KellyBy Tyler Testin '20
Shades of the 2009 Orange Bowl will be seen when the Irish next take the field. That BCS game in Miami was the last time Mike Mickens shared a sideline with Brian Kelly.
Mickens, then a standout cornerback for Cincinnati, was drafted three months later by the Dallas Cowboys to begin his NFL career, while Kelly spent one more year as Bearcats’ head coach before taking his talents to South Bend, becoming Notre Dame’s Dick Corbett Head Football Coach.
With the introduction of Mickens as Notre Dame’s defensive backs/cornerbacks coach, the duo is poised for a football family reunion.
“Passion. Energy. I always want to bring those two things because I believe players feed off your energy."
“I’m a technician,” Mickens said. “I know things aren’t going to be perfect, but I want things to be perfect. It’s a standard that we want to create with aggressive mentality.”
Part of the group of assistant coaches added to Coach Kelly’s staff this spring, Mickens briefly visited the team and began to acclimate with the university before COVID-19 precautions cut spring practice short.
“You can tell as soon as you get on campus, it’s a special place,” Mickens noted. “You can feel the energy right away when you walk into the facilities. You know the tradition. It’s a great honor to be able to represent the university.”
Next fall is filled with more unknowns than usual for the football program, including the makeup of Notre Dame’s secondary. Shaun Crawford is allowed to return for a rare sixth season due to previous injuries, but junior TaRiq Bracy is the only other rostered corner with in-game experience. New faces will be expected to make immediate impact defending passes in the approaching season.
“All the players are great. One thing that you know right away is that they’re very motivated young men,” the new secondary coach attested. “They’re eager to learn, competing in the classroom and competing on the field. You can tell that they are driven and have the mentality of trying to win a National Championship.”
Notre Dame’s balanced academic and athletic legacy is not unfamiliar to Mickens. The 2008 All-American was a single-season record holder in the former BIG EAST conference for total interception return yards and the career leader in multiple statistics at Cincinnati. Mickens also graduated from Cincinnati with a degree in criminal justice.
“I try to relate to them with my experience, where I had a lot of accolades in college and did a lot of great things, but also made a wrong cut on the field one time and got my knee caught up a little bit,” Mickens remembered.
“The game ended faster than what I wanted it to end, but I had a degree that I could go back and fall on. It's still paying dividends to this day.”
Mickens’ left knee suffered a serious cartilage tear in practice near the end of his senior season. A testament to toughness, he returned to play in the Bearcats’ bowl game and earned a seventh-round draft selection. Mickens spent time on three NFL rosters, including a return to Cincinnati with the Bengals, before transitioning to coaching.
“Your film speaks. What you do on the field and the choices you make off the field are going to be critical to how high you go [in the NFL Draft],” the former professional player relayed. “If you had a standard every day, a way you practice and go about your craft, then when training camp comes in the NFL where all you have is primary practice to perform, to make a team, well, nothing changed to you. You already know what the standard is.”
Mickens has summarized his high standards in the “Corner Creed,” by which all of the assistant’s players now swear. The three tenets of this mindset — effort, speed and violence — are the traits on which Mickens focuses during practice, because he believes they can be displayed by every defensive back, independent of talent.
Mickens’ coaching philosophy developed learning from a young Brian Kelly at Cincinnati. Now as the protege reunites with his old teacher, Mickens sees many of the same qualities that turned around the Bearcats’ program in the 2000s present in the way Kelly runs the Fighting Irish.
“First thing you know about Coach [Kelly] is, he’s a great leader. He can motivate young men,” Mickens observed. “The great thing about that is guys love playing for him. He brings the energy out, the passion out of you in the game. Coach wants to graduate champions. He wants to see you do great things on the field, but also great things off the field.”
Their Orange Bowl game together 11 years ago ended in defeat to Virginia Tech, but Mickens has greater ambitions as a member of Coach Kelly’s staff. His relatability as a former player makes the 2008 Thorpe Award Semifinalist an asset on the recruiting trail. Additionally, he has a reputation for maximizing young talent, with Cincinnati CB Ahmad Gardner winning 2019 Freshman All-American honors under Mickens’ guidance.
“It doesn’t matter what your age is. It doesn’t matter what year you are. If you want to compete at a high level, you have to go perform and compete every day,” Mickens said. “We had some young guys at Cincinnati, but it was a competitive room in general. That’s what I want to create here.”
With expectations to build upon Notre Dame’s winning tradition, there is another matchup besides the College Football Playoff upcoming on Mickens’ calendar. The Irish are scheduled to host Cincinnati on October 2 of 2021. When the two schools face off for the first time in more than a century, Mickens vows not to let nostalgia for his alma mater get in the way of allegiance to the Fighting Irish.
“It’s going to go great…for us. I’m competitive, so it will be fun to be able to play.”
Tyler Testin is a student intern for Fighting Irish Media, working with the lacrosse and football teams. The senior electrical engineering major also competes for Notre Dame’s rugby club and plans to live and work in Massachusetts after graduation.