They finished No. 5 and No. 3 among the team's tackles-for-loss leaders, despite spending the bulk of their time on the perimeter of the defense. And they finished No. 2 and No. 3 in terms of passes defended, possessing the versatility needed to excel rather than simply survive at the position most-scrutinized within a modern-era defense.
And because of this pair, there are but two truths in the 2001 Notre Dame defensive backfield:
- Gary Gray and Robert Blanton will make plays
- Unlike last season, one of their untested backups must as well
The Irish defense dominated late last season because there was no letdown from CB No. 1 through CB No. 3 in the rotation…a third cornerback is a starter, or at least valued regular, in today's game.
And therein lies the rub as the Irish enter Week Two of spring practice. Can Lo Wood, a freshman widely respected, but rarely utilized by the coaching staff last season, step up to a near-featured role?
"Lo came in last year at a 100-level class," explained newly-minted cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks of Wood's early enrollee efforts last spring. "(He was) in our base defense, just understanding how to lineup. This year he's more of a 200-level guy: he's starting to understand the alignment and the play (design/purpose); and now he's going to make the play and finish it."
Wood earned playing time as a member of the team's coverage units last fall but only saw scrimmage time in lopsided contests. He was lauded for his work ethic and conditioning, but the trio of Gray, Blanton, and since-graduated Darrin Walls ahead of him precluded meaningful playing time with his defensive cohorts.
As a result, the learned "feel" for the game and intricacies of his position, one in which he displayed regularly in high school and in early scrimmages last spring/fall, continues a work in progress at the collegiate level.
"He needs to start anticipating a little more," Cooks continued. "For instance, when we're in a certain defense, he (has to know) he can cheat more because something is happening behind him. That's where he has to continue to progress in his game. Thus far in the spring he's been doing it."
Wood's confidence and playmaking knack was evident in the team's 7 vs. 7 drills in last Saturday's practice when the sophomore broke on a slant route pass from classmate Andrew Hendrix, stole the offering, and raced into the end zone. (His natural aggressiveness could be hindered in Week Two of spring practice as Wood is reportedly battling a strained hamstring.)
Wood's ability to rotate at the field cornerback role vacated by Walls will be key not only to the base defense (giving Blanton and Gray an occasional rest), but also in the team's nickel defense where, ideally, Blanton can again move inside to man the challenging nickel defender role.
"We'd actually like a three-deep at that spot (nickel)," said Cooks of a defense the Irish showcased frequently over the season's final nine contests. "But a lot of that depends if we can find backup corners that we feel comfortable with playing out there; a guy that can rotate in."
April AssimilationWhile Wood's the odds-on favorite for the third cornerback role, wide receiver convert Bennett Jackson – not to mention three incoming freshmen ready to audition in the summer and through August camp – will be counted upon to provide necessary depth at the position. And not luxury, or distant depth, either: either Jackson or a true freshman will be Notre Dame's fourth cornerback in 2011.
Jackson has impressed early in terms of the position's physical demands, but has miles to go to allow his coaches a modicum of sleep considering the glut of quality opposing receivers that await the team next fall.
"I would say – and it may sound crazy because of the tempo of our offense – but right now his urgency to get into his coverage and into his responsibility really needs to pick up," said Cooks when pressed for an early weakness in the former receiver's game.
"(For instance) right now if we're in a Cover 3, he's easing out and drifting instead of really understanding that those wide receivers are going to be on top of you (in a hurry). And he played the position, so that's the irony of it. You'd think he'd understand the (need/balance) for cushion and depth. He's having that issue in all the coverages.
"But that's easily corrected; he just has to continue to get the feel for what we're asking him to do in terms of the speed – it's different, now he has to do everything running backwards instead of running forward. He's not dictating the terms anymore."
As expected from the team's 2010 Special Teams Player of the Year, Jackson's strength has been on display in attack mode.
"I saw a lot of potential when he was just running down on special teams, making plays and being aggressive," Cooks said. "Obviously he has tremendous speed.
"Since he's been over at corner, we've seen the ability for him over the last five practices to flip his hips, to be able to execute the proper footwork, to be able to align the right way, and to have his eyes in the right position.
"Now he has a long way to go as far as continuing to make plays and be able understand the concepts of our defense but I'm very pleased with where he is this spring."
While his development to date appears promising, Jackson's one play/injury away from a major role on a still-foreign side of scrimmage – his continued development is mandatory to strengthen the back end of the Irish defense.
(Note: A feature on the Gary Gray/Robert Blanton tandem will be published separately this spring.)