A year ago at this time, cornerback was hands down the least experienced unit on Notre Dame’s team. Not only was it the lone position on offense or defense with zero starting experience, but the Irish also had no true corners enrolling. Furthermore, in August a torn Achilles sidelined junior Lo Wood, the team’s most seasoned prospect, for the season.
Senior Bennett Jackson headlines a more seasoned cornerback corps in 2013.
The “Lo Blow” eventually turned into “lo and behold.” Junior Bennett Jackson and freshman KeiVarae Russell, a running back prospect, ended up starting all 13 games on a unit that finished No. 2 in scoring defense and performed beyond all expectations.
Still, because of the inexperience, the defense was kept relatively simple to protect the corners and help prevent the home run balls. The simplicity was eventually exploited by Alabama in the BCS Championship. In 2013, cornerback now is expected to be a cornerstone with the return of legitimate NFL prospect Jackson, 2012 Freshman All-American Russell, and Wood, who has excelled during the first week of spring.
With Jackson coming off shoulder surgery and sitting out the drills, Wood has been working at boundary corner with Russell on the field side, although the goal is for all the corners to learn both positions.
“You would hope that with 13 games, and you’ve got some depth now of guys that have played, that allows you to be a little more flexible in your defense,” said cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks. “Last year we had a young guy who was kind of given the position by default because of the injury to Lo, so we had to do some things to protect him. As the season wore on, we did less and less of that to the boundary corner (Jackson) and got back to playing our defense. Right now we’re just running what we run and we don’t have to have any protections on those guys.”
The 5-11 Russell played at 175 pounds in 2012 but was listed at 190 on this spring’s roster. That could aid his tackling, the main area where he had to develop.
“When I got him he was a raw piece of clay, so he’s learning for the first time,” Cooks said. “The thing that he’s got is he’s naturally gifted with a lot of athletic ability. He’s a smart player. He’s got to expand his knowledge of where his help his, when he can be aggressive, when he can’t be aggressive, and then tackling is always going to be a big issue for corners.
“As far as athletic ability, he can cover the best wide receivers in the country and he’s proved that. It’s about doing it on a consistent basis and being confident in understanding what you’re doing and when you can do it.”
With Jackson, who athletically is as talented as any cornerback Cooks has worked with, it’s about continuing to clean up small nuances such as footwork, eye placement and especially playing a little lower. Jackson is using the spring to expand his football IQ, including studying the role of the safeties and other defenders.
Watching Russell and Wood in action this spring also makes Jackson not taking anything for granted despite returning as the team’s top tackler (65) and with the most interceptions (4) from last year.
“If I continue to show up and not produce, somebody else is going to take my spot,” Jackson said. “They’re out there now competing physically and mentally, and I’m just out there competing mentally … there’s not anybody that has a guaranteed spot.”
Of his 195-pound roommate Wood, Jackson marvels at how quickly he’s returned.
“He’s worked his butt off, his upper body, and it’s paid off with his jams,” Jackson said. “There’s still a little rust he needs to knock off, which is evident in everybody’s game right now, but he hasn’t really lost a step. Just having three corners, [the coaches] know both sides can compete at a high level and it takes a lot of pressure off of them.”
Russell bypassed juniors Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson last August, but Cooks is anticipating them to be more prepared this season.
“They have to get it in their mind that it’s an every-down, every-play consistency,” Cooks said. “It’s not that they don’t have the ability, but they have to do it on a consistent basis. KeiVarae went out there and, probably because he didn’t know any better, he just went 100 miles an hour.
“It was easy to say, ‘Okay, this guy is athletic enough, he’s smart enough, he goes 100 miles an hour, he does exactly what you ask and he does it every time — why wouldn’t you give him the opportunity?’ With Jalen and Josh, there are times in their game where they have lapses, where they are fundamentally wrong, or they don’t get the correct call or don’t play the call the right way.
“We had a very honest conversation, and it seems like Jalen and Josh are both more professional in their meetings, in their preparation and how they’re practicing on the field.”
Cooks aspired to have at least a three-man rotation at corner the way the Irish did in 2010 with Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton (both in the NFL) and Gary Gray.
“I would love to get back to that, and that’s what I told those guys: ‘Don’t look at KeiVarae and Bennett starting for 13 games,’ ” Cooks said. “You look at, ‘How can I go and help this team?’ If I can get those guys on a 3-3-3 rotation, every three plays … but they have to be able to go out there and play with no drop-off.
“I’ve always felt like since I’ve been here my first few years I’ve been kind of short-handed at the cornerback position. But this year, finally, I feel like I’ve got some depth. Not just depth for bodies, but guys that can go and play and you feel okay with them being out there on the field.
“It’s going to allow us to continue to expand our package. Last year we couldn’t get into nickel package or dime package because we were limited at cornerback and in what they can do. This year, Lord willing they stay healthy, we can open up our whole playbook like we did in year one and continue to expand that.”