Motivated By Accomplished Mentors, Nick McCloud Feels Ready For Notre Dame
To understand Nick McCloud’s motivation, start at Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe High School practices about 15 years ago, where future college and NFL players Stephon Gilmore, DeVonte Holloman and Jadeveon Clowney toiled as teenagers for McCloud’s father, Nakia, an assistant coach, with young Nick as an observer.
Or start with a McCloud family trip to former NFL star Sheldon Brown’s lake house around the same time, an up-close look at the life of a top-level corner. Or Nakia’s reverent mentions of Rock Hill native and former Notre Dame defensive back Jeff Burris, his own role model and a former NFL star.
McCloud, then a grade schooler, understood Rock Hill and South Carolina’s football tradition — particularly with defensive backs. Born from watching his predecessors’ success — and relationships with several of them that followed — was the affinity and desire to play cornerback and do it at a high level.
“It was just being around all the athletes, all those guys and just watching what others do and knowing where he wanted to go,” said Strait Herron, South Pointe’s former head coach.
Not that there was any doubt left he had reached that point, but his most recent move hammered it home. McCloud, a two-year starting cornerback for North Carolina State, is the newest member of Notre Dame’s secondary after committing May 11 as a graduate transfer despite not taking a visit.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like a great place to be,” McCloud said.
His own pedigree as a corner with ideal size (6-1, 190) for the boundary position and starter on a pair of nine-win teams in 2017 and 2018 speaks for itself. McCloud is headed to Notre Dame by way his own accomplishments. Behind those, though, are some star-studded mentors and some Notre Dame connections in South Carolina that helped him reach that level and steer him to South Bend.
Chief among McCloud’s mentors is Gilmore, who despite an eight-year age difference and growing profile as one of the NFL’s best defensive players has remained a confidant, motivator and “like a big brother,” Nakia says.
Gilmore and McCloud work out three or four times per week now by meeting at a field to do drills together. In normal times, they’ll meet at Gilmore’s house for lunch or to relax. When North Carolina State played at Boston College last year, McCloud flew with the team despite being unavailable that week due to injury and met Gilmore at the New England Patriot’s team facility.
Whether it was watching Clowney in high school practices or Gilmore go through his NFL workouts, McCloud picked up on a relentless motor and drive. It is those attributes, he realized, that get you in an even better position to put a pool in your lake house like Brown had.
“Just always good to be in the presence of winning,” McCloud said. “They kept at it. Just worked. You could tell the difference of how they worked vs. how everyone else did. That’s where they are today.”
Added Nakia: “For him to see those guys on TV, he kind of decided, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
The lessons learned and example set by his mentors rubbed off on McCloud. Herron, who coached Gilmore and McCloud, said Gilmore once called him on Christmas Eve to ask if the school weight room was open. Herron recalled Gilmore missed a sole workout one season. McCloud one-upped him, missing only one workout in two years.
“He didn’t have to be told everything,” Herron said. “He could sense what he should be doing and how he should be doing it.”
Nowhere was that clearer than McCloud’s approach and eagerness to play cornerback. He liked it more than quarterback, which he played when he first picked up football at age 9. He enjoyed it more than wide receiver, his primary position his first three years of high school.
“We needed Nick to play wide receiver for us,” Herron said. “In high school, if you want to be good, you have to be smart with how you use your players. That’s what we asked him to do, and he did it. I had to tell him on multiple occasions that Stephon played quarterback. He went to college as a DB and now he’s the best DB in the NFL. That’s just the way high school sports are.”
McCloud was South Pointe’s best receiver until a full-time move to corner as a senior because, as Herron puts it, “he remembered the routes.” He had the size to serve as a big target, but it was his acclimation to the position that earned his coaches and his quarterbacks trust.
College coaches, though, saw McCloud as a defensive back. He was ranked as a defensive back and competed in camps as a defensive back. Rivals rated him as the No. 2 defensive back in South Carolina in the 2016 class, behind a cornerback from nearby Greer, Troy Pride Jr. McCloud and Pride never played against each other, but encountered one another at camps and other football events in the state. A friendship arose.
“We were both being recruited by the same schools, both trying to be ranked higher than the other one,” McCloud said. “We’re good friends. Just mutual respect and competition. Anything I need, I can call him. Anything he needs, he can call me.”
In January, McCloud picked up the phone to ask a favor. He had just entered the transfer portal to explore another place to use his fifth year, an unexpected opportunity that came up when he played in two games in 2019 due to injury and took a redshirt. Instead of preparing for the NFL, he was going through recruiting a second time. When Notre Dame defensive backs coach Terry Joseph reached out, McCloud went to Pride to pick his brain.
Pride, the Carolina Panthers’ fourth-round pick last month, spent 2019 as Notre Dame’s boundary corner, the spot where McCloud projects best. He was a two-year starter and became an NFL Draft prospect in Clark Lea’s defense. McCloud saw his old friend’s path and was intrigued. Pride told him about leaving home, how his parents’ enjoyed trips to home games and how he was used defensively.
Most important: Pride told him he viewed it as the ideal spot to develop into a pro.
“It was how Notre Dame helped propel him to where he is now,” McCloud said. “That’s the biggest thing I was looking for in the transfer process.”
He had another former Fighting Irish defensive back to ask: Burris, who is now the cornerbacks coach at Louisiana Tech. Burris played in the NFL for 10 years after his Notre Dame career after starring at Notre Dame from 1990-93. After his career, he coached kids camps in Rock Hill, which Nick attended. Burris gave him another viewpoint on the demands of Notre Dame and the opportunities it gave him.
Joseph handled the recruitment until cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens joined in upon being hired in February. He went to Rock Hill to visit McCloud and his family before the coronavirus shut all recruiting activity down. McCloud played at Notre Dame as a visiting player in 2018, but never came to campus to visit before committing. He felt comfortable enough with the existing pitch.
“There were no promises being made,” McCloud said. “He presented me the situation and just said to come in and work. … That’s all I ever needed from the beginning, just to have the opportunity to come in and do great things.
“They were consistent through the whole process from beginning to end.”
Still, McCloud saw a potential role and the path to playing time was clear in a Notre Dame cornerback room thin on experience. Pride and Donte Vaughn, both starters in 2019, are with NFL teams. He’s a bigger cornerback than nickel Shaun Crawford, who came back for a sixth year, and TaRiq Bracy, who can play multiple cornerback positions. The fit made sense.
“I can move well enough to be a corner with great size,” McCloud said. “At my size, I can move like smaller guys and that’s what separates me from being a safety or nickel.”
Speed has been a longtime focus. Twice a week in high school, Nick and Nakia would drive an hour to after practice to work out with former NFL running back Tremayne Stephens, who runs an agility and speed training facility outside Charlotte. They would often get home at 11 p.m.
Now, workouts with Gilmore involve drills that keep his agility sharp. The competition goes up at Notre Dame. His teammates are faster and stronger. So are the opponents.
Those around him and who helped shape him have no doubt he can handle it.
“Nick’s always going to be successful,” Herron said. “It’s the way he’s wired. He knows what his abilities are, his strengths are. He’s always been that way.”
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