Exacerbating the loss of safety Harrison Smith and cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton was the 2010 graduation of four-year contributor Darrin Walls (another 35 games/24 starts). In short, four of the six main contributors since the outset of the 2008 campaign at the program have vacated their spots over head coach Brian Kelly's first two seasons.
Enter newly-minted co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks, the coach who's worked closely with Irish cornerbacks since he arrived at Kelly's request in January 2010.
Said Kelly of Cooks' ascent in the program: "(Cooks) will now be our co-defensive coordinator and that role will keep him with the cornerbacks as a position group, but expand his role as it relates to game planning, as it relates to systems that he's going against each week relative to the passing game."
Joining forces with Cooks is his collegiate mentor, new safeties coach Bob Elliott, one of two newcomers to the staff.
Expected to serve a key role for both is 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter, a jack-of-all-trades for the Irish defense in 2011.
"I didn't know what to expect, when you watch television games, you don't get to see the secondary, so you don't see much," Elliott said of his first impressions of Slaughter. "When I watched him on tape I was pleasantly surprised by his versatility. His ability to do corner-like things at the safety position is really a great thing to have going for us.
"He's really a hybrid type of guy and you can't underestimate that. It gives us so much flexibility schematically which they (showed) last year."
Five Guys?Cooks' focus this spring will be to break in an entirely new two-deep on the corners. The Irish have five cornerbacks on their spring roster. Each will have a chance to earn starting or significant time between now and the team's opener in Dublin.
"To me it's going to be fun. Every program is going to have some attrition," Cooks offered. "We're going to miss Gary Gray (46 games/33 starts) and we're going to miss Robert Blanton (50 games/26 starts). I feel like we have some talented guys back there. They're going to be a little green and a little raw.
"But just from the early instances, seeing them in the weight room, and in workouts, they're excited, they're intense, focused. And they understand they need to be ready right now. We can't give them a year. They have to be ready tomorrow. And that's the one thing I've been harping on with all those guys."
Jackson emerged as the team's No. 6 defensive back last year, earning significant field time vs. Maryland, Stanford, and Florida State. Atkinson made his mark on special teams, starting on the kick coverage unit over the final seven games and earning sporadic time from scrimmage, though often in non-competitive games.
Wood has had an uneven first two seasons: the highlight a 57-yard interception return for a touchdown vs. Maryland; the lowlight a mismatch in space vs. USC All-America Robert Woods that resulted in the game-clinching score in a 31-17 October defeat.
Brown and (likely) Shepard will make their debuts in the fall.
(A potential addition to the group is the final addition to the class of 2012, Arizona athlete Davonte' Neal, who'll join either the slot receivers, cornerbacks, or both, over the summer.)
Among the spring quintet are zero collective starts, far more playing time on the coverage and return units than from scrimmage, and plenty of questions in need of answers.
"The spring for me is about developing every cornerback and every safety's skill," said Cooks. "Whatever that is: footwork, eye placement, progression; the understanding of our defense. Not necessarily finding (particular spots) for five guys.
"So if we develop their skills and their fundamentals, they're (innate talent) is going to show. It's all about developing those guys from a fundamental standpoint and a concept of, ‘Hey, this is what we're trying to get accomplished.'
"Once you've got that base (established), it's ‘Who can do it better? Once you do it better, you're going to separate yourself naturally."
Jackson was technically the team's backup boundary cornerback last year (Gray the starter). Wood was the technical field backup (Blanton). A fair amount of evaluation at both positions, for all five competitors, waits.
"The good thing is we have tremendous experience at safety," Cooks offered. "Jamoris Slaughter can do anything in the world back there: corner, safety, nickel. And Zeke Motta has continued to progress," he added of the senior-to-be who finished the season with fumble recovery touchdown and deep downfield pass breakup vs. Florida State.
"We have players back there with great leadership skill and those guys understand how important it is to get the corners up to speed, as well as developing more safeties."
(Note: A separate look at the team's safeties and position coach Bob Elliott's early thoughts on the group is forthcoming.)
Out with the old, in with the newOver the last four football seasons, Notre Dame has seen six multi-season starters exit its defensive backfield ranks:
S David Bruton (2008): 48 games played, 24 starts, 174 tackles, 7 tackles-for-loss, 4 INT, 12 pass break-ups, 3 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries. Currently a member of the Denver Broncos.
S Kyle McCarthy (2009): 50 games played, 26 starts, 240 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 8 interceptions, 12 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble. Currently a member of the Kansas City Chiefs.
CB Darrin Walls (2010): 45 games played, 34 starts, 140 tackles, 23 pass break-ups, 5 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery. Currently a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
Harrison Smith(2011): 51 games played, 47 starts, 309 tackles, 18.5 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, 7 interceptions, 28 pass break-ups (2nd all-time), 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery. Ranks as the only player in program history with more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 pass break-ups in his Irish career. Invited to 2012 NFL Combine.
Robert Blanton (2011): 50 games played, 26 starts, 146 tackles, 19 tackles-for-loss, 8 interceptions (one touchdown), 18 pass break-ups, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 1 blocked punt touchdown. Invited to 2012 NFL Combine.
Gary Gray (2011): 46 games played, 33 starts, 176 tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss, 6 interceptions, 17 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery.