CornerbacksThe unit returns zero starters, one career interception (returned for a touchdown by Lo Wood) and limited playing time from scrimmage. The defection of 2012 early enrollee Tee Shepard left the team with four scholarship cornerbacks prior to the move of Cam McDaniel (RB) to the group just before the start of spring practice.
Given Strength: None. After five seasons in which the position enjoyed a chain of custody, no starters return at the corners, nor do any consistent backups, though the player listed below began to emerge late last fall.
Emerging Competitor: Bennett Jackson – The junior-to-be made a quick impression as a true freshman for Brian Kelly's first Irish squad, winning Special Teams Player of the Year honors that included a debut game of four consecutive tackles in kick coverage to open the season. Jackson wasn't the same player on the coverage units last season, but by early November he'd emerged as a reliable sixth defensive back, and even took quality rotation time on the corner as the season concluded.
By all staff accounts, Jackson is ahead of his younger competitors and classmate Lo Wood in the battle for both open starting cornerback jobs.
Look Out For: Josh Atkinson – Lauded by position coach Kerry Cooks for his work ethic, overall athleticism, and his aggressiveness, Atkinson nonetheless will make his collegiate debut, at least in competitive situations, at cornerback next fall (he played CB in a six touchdown win over Navy last October).
Said Cooks of Atkinson, who toiled most of 2011 on the Scout Team: "He's at Level 1 learning everything. Level 1 meaning he's still learning how to line up, take the proper stance, the proper eye progression, in all of our defenses. And then from there he has to go play with all these wide receivers flying at him. He's a ways away, but he's getting better and he's made improvement."
Unanswered Questions: There are no "answered" questions, but I'll give it a shot: Can Lo Wood improve at his admitted weakness (one reiterated by the staff) of battling for the ball in the air? Is Josh Atkinson the team's second best corner, and if so, isn't it time to begin evaluating him on the field side rather than his current boundary spot behind Jackson? Is Jackson as ready for full-scale competition as we've been led to believe? How close is Jalen Brown to winning the field cornerback job, especially if Atkinson remains to the boundary? If Jackson goes down, will do-it-all safety Jamoris Slaughter be forced to move to cornerback?
Will Cam McDaniel remain at cornerback for the next three years and should he take a redshirt season this fall (his sophomore year) if the quartet of competitors in front of him remain in good health? Notre Dame doesn't face a proficient passing attack in September: can this green unit be made ready for prime time and the season's following arduous months vs. the likes of Landry Jones and Matt Barkley? Could Notre Dame perform any worse in the secondary than it did last year vs. Michigan and USC?
Unsolicited Advice: Keep recruiting cornerbacks. Three is not enough for 2013, assuming the next (#3) and any that follow can compete for rotation roles by 2014. Talented, quick-twitch athletes at cornerback are essential to combat versatile modern offenses and a limited cornerback puts pressure on the rest of the secondary to perform outside its limits. At present, this is where offenses will attack an otherwise sound Irish defense.