Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish linebackers.
Defensive BacksViewed as a definitive weakness entering the season, Notre Dame's secondary -- coached in unison by Kerry Cooks (cornerbacks, co-coordinator), Bob Elliott (safety) and Bob Diaco (coordinator), currently ranks among the nation's top 20 in every passing-related statistical category.
Camp Questions: Could Lo Wood emerge as a reliable starter at the field CB spot? Later, which rookie cornerback would take the place of the injured Wood, lost for the season after August Achilles tendon surgery? Was Bennett Jackson ready for prime time as the staff repeatedly indicated? Who would replace assumed third safety Austin Collinsworth, lost in spring to shoulder surgery? Could the Irish secondary stop any quarterback/receiver combo with a pulse? Would Jamoris Slaughter be the team's nickel defender as he was the previous season, or was his veteran presence mandatory as a deep safety? Who would serve the all-important nickel role if not Slaughter? Could Zeke Motta approach graduated star Harrison Smith's play from previous seasons?
The season's answersWood's promising debut as a starter ended before it began, but true freshman Keivarae Russell -- a high school running back with no cornerback experience -- started 12 games in his stead and earned Freshman All-America honors for his efforts. Jackson played well enough in his first season as a starter to submit his name for NFL Draft evaluation as a true junior (he chose to remain at Notre Dame), intercepting four passes to rank second on the team while breaking up eight passes (also second) and finishing tied for second on the squad in total tackles with Motta (61).
Motta evolved from garden-variety starter to indispensable veteran leader, intimidator, and knockout hitter -- the most important member of the back line and a senior charged with aligning and guiding a secondary that included three former offensive players as fellow starters; four rookies as a full second unit.
Barely on the radar in August, redshirt-freshman Matthias Farley stepped up to be the No. 3 safety, then ascended to starting status when seemingly irreplaceable Slaughter was lost for the season. True freshman Elijah Shumate won and kept the nickel defender role, though he was used in more packages in September than November, ceding snaps to linebacker Ishaq Williams. Collinsworth's absence was never exploited, with Farley, Shumate, and true freshman Nicky Baratti all making major contributions as fifth defenders from Game One through Game 12 at USC.
Season Takeaway: Notre Dame's defensive staff is among the nation's best, expertly using the talents of its players while rarely allowing a weakness -- inexperience included -- to be exploited. The Irish allowed seven touchdown passes, fewest at the program in 30 years.
BCS Championship Questions: Notre Dame hasn't allowed a touchdown over the top of its defense since the first drive of the season-opener vs. Navy, a 26-yard post route past Russell (in his first ever action at corner). Can this well-schooled unit maintain discipline vs. Alabama's power running game while still maintaining deep responsibilities down the field?