Impressions: Cornerbacks

Our third post-spring position review examines the team's cornerback situation heading into the off-season.

Turnaround Tandem

Gary Gray/Robert Blanton = Jeff Samardzija/Maurice Stovall?? Not since Samardzija and Stovall (2005) have a pair of players at the same position benefited so greatly from a coaching change – from head coach to coordinator to position coach, as did Gray and Blanton last fall…The pair finished #3 and #7, respectively, in our Irish Eyes Top 10 Player rankings, last season, that just one year removed from a solid, but unspectacular half-season from Gray and a lost year for Blanton due largely to a disjointed defensive staff…

Nonetheless, the most important, under-the-radar, front line defender is the pair's backup: sophomore cornerback Lo Wood…A defense can be effective without a solid third cornerback, but it can't pretend to approach greatness (Blanton was the team's technical third CB last year, and keyed the success of the nickel defense)…

Converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson could develop into a solid No. 4 early next season – his natural aggression and tackling skills, coupled with the team's abundance of zone schemes plays to Jackson's strengths: assuming good health in front of him, Jackson will rarely be asked to turn and run with the best receivers the schedule has to offer…

Speaking of which, is there a better run support cornerback tandem in the nation than Gray and Blanton? Neither's a true "cover corner" (there aren't many nationwide in a given season), but the pair provides something more valuable on the perimeter: toughness, and they rank as easily the best, well-rounded duo at the school since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff dominated the outside with big plays in 2002…

Top five Notre Dame CB tandems of the last 25 years:

  1. Todd Lyght and Stan Smagala (1988-89)
  2. Walton and Duff (2002) – part of a scorched-earth defense in the season-finale at USC, otherwise they'd threaten No. 1
  3. Tom Carter and Bobby Taylor (1992) – this is cheating, the true freshman Taylor shifted to free safety at mid-season, but I figure I'd point out their time together, regardless
  4. Gray and Blanton (2011?)
  5. Bobby Taylor (back at CB) and Greg Lane (1993)

Blanton's 2010 exploits cannot be overstated: he started just one game (at outside linebacker vs. Army) but still finished No. 3 on the team in total "Big Plays" behind only Darius Fleming and Harrison Smith (Big Plays are defined by Irish Eyes as tackles-for-loss, passes defended, sacks, interceptions, blocked kicks, forced and recovered fumbles)– Blanton also joined graduated CB Darrin Walls as the only Irish defenders/special teams players to score a touchdown in 2010…

To play or not to play…that was the question

Did Lo Wood burn, or best utilize a season of eligibility by appearing predominately in kick/punt coverage over 11 games last fall? In fairness to the staff, Wood was an early enrollee that adapted to nearly everything asked of him; they likely trusted him as one of the team's faster athletes to help the coverage units…But why not get your No. 4 CB some (quality, not garbage) rotation time in blowouts vs. BC, Western Michigan, Utah, Army, and Miami? (Wood did not play vs. USC or Miami)…

Wood will again be counted on heavily in a kick/punt coverage role as you have to assume the staff would like to move Blanton out of that spot (nine tackles last year) to save some wear and tear over a 13-game set…Wood's a natural cornerback with the ball in the air, but we'll know if he's been adequately prepared for prime time by Week Three when Michigan State rolls into South Bend (of the trio of Spartans perimeter targets to burn the Irish over the last two seasons, only WR Mark Dell has moved on from East Lansing)…Gray/Blanton vs. MSU's 6'2" 225-pound WR B.J. Cunningham (two TD last year in win over the Irish) will be worth the price of admission on September 18…

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks on Wood's second spring: "Lo came in (2010 spring) at a 100-level class – 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, now he's going to make the play and finish it.

"He needs to start anticipating a little more, for instance, when we're in a certain defense 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 recorded the only interception of the Blue Gold Game, a play in which head coach Brian Kelly used great detail to explain when noting the team's most improved players this spring:

"Lo Wood had a high interception (defending) the high low combination (route), which so many times a younger corner's going to drive on that smash out (route). Well, he sank and played the flag (route), so that's another guy that I would point out to you."

Wood will get trial-by-fire, but one early success (a pass defended, even a cheap interception) would go a long way to building the corner's confidence as a member of the nickel package…

Final Thoughts

Can one of Notre Dame's four incoming defensive backs challenge for the No. 4 cornerback spot by season's end? How much of a drop-off will there be in the nickel defense this season? The unit was the team's best package (offense or defense) by season's end…Can Wood adapt to a true rotation at field cornerback, allowing Blanton to shift inside where he thrived defensively, or will the Irish need to use a third safety in their nickel package, thereby weakening the overall coverage ability of the unit?

Whenever I question if Blanton can turn-and-burn well enough to thrive full-time at field cornerback (there can be a lot of ground to cover at times), I think back to his downfield sprint and interception in a one-on-one situation vs. Miami last winter and my feelings of dread are assuaged...Do yourself a favor: Never watch film of Blanton in 2009 - you'll be more than reasonably angry at that defensive coaching staff...Can Bennett Jackson play the ball in the air better than most converted wide receivers (who tend to flail at, rather than attack the 50-50 Ball…Will Gary Gray's knack for the crafty arm bar/tug finally bite the Irish at a crucial time (Gray has perfected the technically illegal maneuver)…Is Gray fully-recovered from a season-long foot injury through which he played last season? Knowing special teams coach Mike Elston prefers experience within his unit, can the Irish afford to take Blanton off their punt block, coverage, and kick coverage units?

Is Gray the best run-support cornerback at ND since: Shane Walton? Bobby Taylor? Tom Carter? Todd Lyght? He rivals Lyght in terms of perfect tackling form while securing the edge (If he could run like Lyght, he wouldn't be returning for a 5th-season)… Can the Irish defend any of the following teams if Gray or Blanton is sidelined for the bulk of the contest: Michigan, Michigan State, Air Force, USC, Navy, Maryland, or Stanford?


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