Three to TangoClassmates Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood appeared to secure starting roles exiting spring ball: Jackson on the boundary, where Gary Gray has played the last two seasons; and Wood to the field side (Darrin Walls in 2010; RJ Blanton last year).
But the unit's most important player might be sophomore Josh Atkinson who'll get his first taste of college wide receivers in September. No modern secondary can function without three solid cornerbacks, and though 5th-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter will likely man the nickel role, the chances that he, Jackson, and Wood each makes it through the season unscathed are slim.
Below is a breakdown of the three names Irish fans will hear early, and hopefully not too often in conjunction with the opposing band, next fall.
Bennett Jackson: Received the stamp of approval from head coach Brian Kelly at spring's outset and the staff has repeatedly offered the former wide receiver is a level ahead of the rest of his competitors at the position. Jackson has the straight-line speed, tenacity, and aggressiveness to improve Notre Dame's boundary position after its myriad struggles last fall. Oddly, he was not as effective last season in kick-off and punt coverage as he was as a true freshman in 2010 when he earned Special Teams Player of the Year honors as a true freshman.
Jackson, who reminds one long-time program observer of former safety standout Glen Earl, suffered a shoulder injury late in spring ball during a scrimmage open to the media and it's apparently a recurring issue for the 6'0" 185-pounder.
Lo Wood: Entered the spring with the most to gain, and lose, among the potential starters at cornerback. The true junior seemed to make his mark late, earning these post Blue Gold game plaudits from head coach Brian Kelly: "If the ball gets funneled out to him, we feel like we've got a really good tackler out there. He tackles very well. He's an aggressive kid, and he's not afraid to put his helmet on. You know, he's not a 4.3. He's not blazing speed. We don't need him to do that. We need him to defend the post, stay above the cut and be a good tackler. He showed a lot of that today."
Wood doesn't run like Kelly's first fleet-footed field cornerback in South Bend, Darrin Walls (nor is he as experienced), but he'll likely be a more reliable tackler and willing hitter, at least with consistent playing time. The key will be improving his admitted hang-up – one echoed by cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks: making plays vs. the ball in the air.
He and Jackson should both shine in the team's opening pair of games vs. Navy (both are ready to hold the edge vs. the option) and against Purdue in South Bend. The proving ground will be in East Lansing in Week Three; under the lights vs. Denard Robinson and Michigan's skill position talent in Week Four, and thereafter vs. a challenging schedule that boasts some of the nation's best quarterbacks such as Oklahoma's Landry Jones and USC's Matt Barkley, as well as top tier wide receivers, especially Trojans star Robert Woods who torched the Irish secondary and beat Wood for a stop-and-go, game-clinching touchdown last fall.
Josh Atkinson: Straight line speed. Check. Press coverage skills. Check. Willingness to tackle? Check. Polished technique, feel for various coverages, and experience vs. BCS level receivers? Therein lies the rub…
A true sophomore whose collegiate playing time was mainly on the kickoff coverage unit in the second half of 2011, Atkinson will be a far better cornerback in 2013 and '14 than he is next fall. (The same holds true for Wood and Jackson above). But Notre Dame needs the less-heralded of the Atkinson twins to evolve into at least a reliable No. 3 corner over the course of 2012, because there will likely be growing pains for other potential first-year starters Jackson and Wood as well.
The best possible news for the fan base and staff alike is if the team's starting tandem doesn't miss a start from Week One through the Bowl, and its chosen third corner improves enough to give both a breather every week, as needed, with minimal drop-off.
The worst case scenario is revisiting this conversation next April.
Two-for-one?Redshirt-freshman Jalen Brown and recently converted running back Cam McDaniel round out the thin cornerbacks corps. Brown appeared to fall a tick behind the others during spring ball, moving from backup field (behind Wood) to backup boundary (behind Jackson) near the session's conclusion.
Kelly noted of Brown: "He has a lot of talent; he just needs to continue to mature. He's long, he's athletic, he's been really impressive in man-to-man, we have to continue to work on his technique when we get into zone coverages." (Its relevant to note the Irish defense heavily relies on zone coverage.)
McDaniel might force his way onto the field not only as a member of the Irish "Run Teams" (kickoff and punt coverage and return), but also in a Dime linebacker/safety role similar to that occupied by Austin Collinsworth at times last season. The 5'10" 195-pounder is all football player and his instincts, toughness, and quickness can be a good match for zone coverage vs. underneath routes and in the flats.