Cooks has corner covered

Veteran talent and young competitors afford Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks a natural pecking order at the position, but its the team's second unit cover men that must emerge over the next four months for the position to meet, or exceed, expectations.

Through three contests, Notre Dame's 2010 secondary and its trio of veteran corners resembled the same shaky group from 2009.

Missed assignments were prevalent in a Week Two loss to Michigan; lapses in tackling returned in spades in an ensuing defeat in East Lansing.

Notre Dame allowed three passing touchdowns and another long completion that set-up a 1-yard touchdown plunge. Each error was attributable to the team's secondary.

Then, the party stopped.

From Week Four (Stanford) through a 30-3 Sun Bowl lead vs. Miami, the Irish defense surrendered just five touchdowns through the air. Five in 39 quarters of football, with only three of the five at the expense of the back line of the Irish defense.

Tiered tandems

After more than three decades spent roaming or tutoring secondaries, former NFL defensive back and new Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks is back in his comfort zone. Cooks coached Notre Dame's outside linebackers last season before shifting to cornerbacks coach in the off-season (defensive backs coach/recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin now works with the safeties).

Cooks valued his time dealing with the Cats and Dogs last fall and has been able to impart crucial elements of that experience to his new group.

"Naturally, there is a higher level of comfort," Cooks said about his switch to coaching the corners. "But I thoroughly enjoyed the outside linebackers and what that did for me is offer the finite points of the front seven stuff, to where I can bring that to the corners and the secondary overall. I can explain what they're looking at up front, and how we need to fit. It was an awesome experience."

Whether ideal or convenient, Cooks' current pieces fit neatly on a tiered depth chart. Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are the cemented starters; sophomore Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson their still-learning backups; freshmen Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson the neophytes and prospects-in-waiting.

"From RJ to Gary, you have guys that have played a lot of football and started a lot of games," Cooks began. "You have Lo and Bennett trying to get to that level, so there's separation, but they're ultra-competitive and confident. They know what's going on.

"Then you bump it down to guys who have no clue about your system," he continued of the freshmen pair. "No clue to what it's like being a freshman on campus, and no clue about all of the distractions they're about to go through. So there's clearly a separation right now. But all of them are athletic, aggressive players. It's a good group to work with."

Though every coach would prefer to have six veteran, top-tier talents at his disposal, Cooks realizes a pecking order has advantages as well.

"Absolutely and as a defensive back coach I'm always pushing for more. Coach Martin gets mad at me (in recruiting meetings)," Cooks joked. "He asks ‘How many corners do you want?' and I tell him, ‘As many great players as I can take.'"

"You never know what injury or circumstance may occur throughout the season. I'm developing Bennett and Lo, and the younger guys but I want to continue to add depth to this program."

Having a field day

Cooks' corners don't play right or left, nor do they matchup with particular receivers. The positions are the boundary cornerback, (aligned closer to the sideline depending on the offense's hash mark); and field cornerback (who thus technically has more open real estate to cover).

Lo Wood, he of the 23 career defensive snaps, backs up Blanton at the latter, and with his boundary counterpart Jackson still transitioning from the offensive side of scrimmage, Wood has a natural leg up for the crucial No. 3 cornerback role as the season approaches.

Just don't tell him that.

"I have to earn that spot. They're not going to give it to me just because there aren't that many defensive backs," Wood noted. "Knowing that if I don't come in working hard, I'm not going to play at all. In my mind I have to play this year. That's my goal.

"Every practice I come out with 100 percent commitment. You can't have one bad practice. You have to treat every practice as a big time role in your game." Wood appeared in the season's first 11 contests on special teams last fall and as an early enrollee in January 2010, has two spring practices and two august camps to his credit entering 2011.

"I'm pretty comfortable (at field CB) because they've had me there since I got here," Wood said. "First behind Darrin (Walls), now behind RJ. That helps a lot. I'm trying to secure the third spot at corner, and some-kind-of-way getting in the rotation with RJ and Gary the best way I can."

A means to that end would be continued improvement at a skill set that plagued the secondary in 2009 but was in ample supply last fall: winning the battle for the ball in the air.

"My strength is probably my footwork and playing man off (a coverage that entails a cushion between the corner and the receiver prior to the snap)," Wood noted before adding, "I would say my weakness is playing the ball. I have to still improve on that."

Cooks is confident that ongoing process will see ultimate success.

"The one thing we talk to them about is that when the ball is in the air they become the wide receiver," Cooks said of his charges on the corners. "You can't have any anxiety. You put those guys in as many realistic situations as you can: have them cover all routes, coaching them to feel body presence (of the receivers). The more you rep, the better you'll get.

"It's a night and day difference, his ball skills now from where they were in the spring," Cooks concluded of Wood's improvement.

Wood's other challenge is a continuous battle for rotation time vs. boundary cornerback Bennett Jackson, the team's reigning Special Teams MVP and top dog on special teams coordinator Mike Elston's coverage units.

Neither Jackson nor Wood will admit a leg up in the race, though both have plenty to say.

"Bennett and I are best friends, but when we come on the field we're two different people," Wood said. "We compete no matter what. It helps (being friends and roommates) because we talk trash with each other, or get in each other's heads or tell each other to both step up our games."

Who wins the battle of smack?

"I don't know, both of us go at it," Wood admitted. "We both say stupid, crazy stuff. Even in our room at night we're talking away."

Two weeks from Saturday, one or both of the sophomore competitors will return to their dorm room with plenty of ammunition for the season's first bout of trash talk that matters.


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