Spring Forward: Redshirt freshmen
Nine true freshmen saw action for the Irish last fall; three appeared in each of the team's 13 games while two (T.J. Jones and Tommy Rees) earned starting nods. The nine first-year competitors appeared in an aggregate 91 games with 11 combined starts.
Start to finish: Austin Collinsworth and Bennett JacksonBoth starred on the Irish coverage units, Jackson from the outset and Collinsworth over the course of the season, finishing with seven tackles for the kickoff team plus a forced fumble vs. Utah. Jackson finished with 10 stops and earned the squad's Special Teams Player of the Year award thanks to his coverage and kick return efforts.
The pair appeared in each of the team's 13 games – Prince Shembo was the only fellow frosh to do so – and both have reportedly moved from Tony Alford's wide receiver unit to the defensive side of scrimmage in an effort to aid the unit's middle classes, not to mention the 2011 two-deep depth chart, in the defensive backfield.
2011 Playing time prospects: Jackson will likely battle a quartet of freshman for a cornerback role in the two-deep depth chart. Returning seniors Robert Blanton and (5th-year) Gary Gray have the starting roles on lockdown but Lo Wood (highlighted below) is the only other veteran competitor on the corner.
A quartet of incoming freshmen, Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, Eilar Hardy, and Matthias Farley will challenge in the fall, though none of the group of newcomers enrolled early to take part in the spring session.
Collinsworth reported move to safety would also place him on the team's two-deep with 5th-year senior Harrison Smith, senior Jamoris Slaughter, and junior Zeke Motta the trio of scholarship players manning two positions. Smith is the guaranteed starter while Slaughter and Motta will duke it out for playing time opposite the team's defensive captain.
Both upperclassmen will play ample minutes, placing Collinsworth and at least one of the freshmen listed above in a true backup role heading into fall 2011.
Cornerback opens with fresh competition for 2012 with both Blanton and Gray exhausting their eligibility. At safety, Slaughter can apply for a 5th-year after 2011 and Motta will be a true senior. Re-joining the backline will be 2010 safety recruit and early enrollee Chris Badger, who will return from his two-year mission in Ecuador for the 2012 season (with four years of eligibility remaining).
The Lo-downNotre Dame entered 2010 with three experienced, battle-tested cornerbacks. Two of the trio – Gary Gray and Robert Blanton – finished among IrishEyes' Top 10 players while the other, graduated senior Darrin Walls, ranked among our honorable mention choices.
Lo Wood's continued development this spring and summer ranks among the underrated storylines for 2011 as no modern pass defense can function at a high-BCS level without a third solid cornerback.
A natural CB (rather than an athlete playing corner), Wood was lauded last spring and in fall camp for his practice habits and attention to detail.
"We're getting unbelievable consistent effort out of him," said defensive backs coach Chuck Martin of Wood in August. "His approach to the game is absolutely what a coach is looking for. Now will that approach last the next four years? I don't know. But if he continues that same approach he'll not only be the best player he can be, but he'll be teaching older guys how to prepare and how to practice. So from that standpoint he's been really, really impressive."
But Wood saw only garbage-time from scrimmage in the fall though did appear as a member of the Irish coverage units for the season's first 11 contests (he did not play vs. USC or Miami).
Blanton starred as the team's No. 3 CB and nickel defender last year. Wood ascends to the former due to graduation and position scarcity, but he'll have to win the latter over either Motta/Slaughter with a strong off-season.
Late-season reinforcements: Schwenke and SmithDefensive end Kona Schwenke first appeared in Game Nine vs. Tulsa, recovering a fumble in his first taste of collegiate action. Wide receiver Daniel Smith sat for the season's first six contests before first earning a spot on kick coverage vs. Western Michigan and for the duration of the season.
Both put forth their most notable efforts in the Game 10 upset vs. Utah: Smith recovering a fumbled kickoff to set up a Notre Dame touchdown; Schwenke with two solo stops and a key QB pressure, bursting through as part of a three-man rush and running over the Utes' blocking ‘back to pressure QB Jordan Wynn into an incomplete pass.
With a full season, spring, and 2011 off-season in the Irish weight program, the 6'4" 250-pound Schwenke will be difficult to unseat from the team's two-deep chart at defensive end...regardless of the incoming freshmen talent at the position. Look for Schwenke to remain part of a stout 4-5 man DE rotation in September with senior Hafis Williams filling in at both DE and NG next fall.
(Note: I'll have more on Daniel Smith later this week in a spring preview dedicated solely to the wide receivers.)
Later today: Part II of Encore Presentations featuring Danny Spond, T.J. Jones, Prince Shembo, and Tommy Rees