Five Guys has two locations in the South Bend area, both espousing the following theory as part of its mission:
"You are not dependent on us. We are dependent on you."
In modern college football, the same could be said of the cornerback position. No matter how many players can do their job well on a given play, it takes a single mistake by one cornerback, at some point during an opponent's drive, to waylay the entire operation.
It's a scary proposition for Notre Dame fans anxiously awaiting the debut of two new starting cornerbacks next fall. Equally vexing is that the lone early standout at the position began to learn his craft just two years ago.
"Bennett is as talented a cornerback as I've ever coached," said cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks of junior Bennett Jackson. "He has speed, he's long, athletic, can flip his hips…the part that he's missing is just the experience. He got a little bit of that toward the back half of the season but he still has to grow."
Jackson, the team's 2010 Special Teams Player of the Year, began his college career as a wide receiver, but toiled almost exclusively for the coverage and return units that first fall. That changed late last season when the Raritan, HS-product (Hazlet, N.J.) forged his way onto the field at cornerback/nickel in key moments vs. Wake Forest, Maryland, Boston College, Stanford, and finally in the bowl battle with Florida State.
"I saw a different approach in probably the last six games of the season," Cooks continued of Jackson who also stars for the Notre Dame track team. "He started to practice like he was a No. 1 (starter) towards the back half of last season. Now he's continued to carry that attitude and continued to raise his game.
"From a technical standpoint he's only been playing defensive back for two years. His footwork in certain techniques has to get better, his eye progression, all those things that all of our guys have to work on and he's no different."
Of course, you can count "all of those other guys" on one hand.
Three to make two?Those other guys include Jackson's classmate Lo Wood – a 22-game veteran of special teams and sporadic scrimmage duty – and sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, the latter of whom red-shirted last season as a true freshman.
"Lo is probably ahead because he took over 150 snaps last year," said Cooks of the competition among the trio at spring's outset. "As far as a game standpoint, being comfortable, knowing the scheme, he's probably ahead of all those guys. He still has things to work on. It's a daily progress to get them fundamentally right."
Cooks noted that both Atkinson and Brown have a real chance to make headway in the position's pecking order.
"Now they see what's in front of them (as opposed to last season with veteran starters in place): to take a job or get into the rotation and play a lot. But they have to first be able to understand our scheme. That's what the spring is about because those guys didn't play any corner for us last year.
"No. 2 they have to understand the urgency; because of our depth situation that we can't wait on them. We need them to be great now, not in August. As long as they take that approach and come every day to get better, from a fundamental standpoint, from an urgency standpoint, and know everyone on defense is counting on them, they'll be fine."
Asked to pinpoint the current strengths of both, Cooks offered the following:
Atkinson: He's fast. He's aggressive. He can be an awesome man-to-man player. He has some technique work to do but he has the ability to go out there and cover.
Brown: He's long, big, physical. He has a better feel right now in some of our zone concepts. We want them to be good man and zone players.
Starting from ScratchThe team's fifth cornerback competitor was slated to be a 5-star freshman – one seemingly capable of winning a role in the rotation early if not immediately. But Tee Shepard's unfortunate exit from the University forced head coach Brian Kelly's hand. Cornerback needed another competitor; running back had an apparent abundance, and sophomore Cam McDaniel was available for duty.
"He's been awesome. His attitude is great. If you know anything about Cam he's an awesome person. He's athletic, tough, and physical enough to do the jobs he needs to do at corner," Cooks said of the decorated Texas high school star that appeared sparingly from scrimmage for the Irish last season but worked his way into a starter's role on the kick return team.
"Anytime you get snaps vs. great competition it helps you build confidence, feel more relaxed, and build camaraderie," Cooks said of McDaniel's ability to find the field last fall. "He's come over for two days and acts like its two years. The only thing that stands out about him is from a technical standpoint, he doesn't know what he's doing. Which you'd expect."
Cooks' job is to get McDaniel comfortable enough to the point he can allow his athletic skills to take over. Less thinking, more reacting and attacking. In other words, the entire quintet is in the same boat.
"Those guys (need help) from the standpoint of experience and understanding the scheme, (but) the effort, the energy, coming to practice every day. Those are the things I'm trying to coach right now. I like what they bring, they just lack experience.
"To me, I have the guys I have. Whether I have eight or four or three (cornerbacks), I'll coach the guys I have. Having five scholarship corners allows us to build depth while we try to find out who our two-deep is."
A reliable two-deep is essential in case of injury, but in reality, three reliable cornerbacks could likely hold down the competitive fort next fall, especially with a certain 5th-year senior available to fill holes wherever they may appear.
"There's no doubt that Ja-Mo is the best guy, he can do anything we ask him to do," said Cooks of safety/nickel/Dog LB Jamoris Slaughter, noting the secondary's leader is capable of playing cornerback as well. "But I feel comfortable with the guys we have that we're not going to need him to do that."