Leap of Faith

A first-time starter kicks off our countdown of Notre Dame's 10 indispensable players for 2012

As noted in the series introduction some of our top 10 selections will be weighted heavily on talent (proven and projected), a position's importance, its relative depth or simply its scarcity of available bodies, and in most cases, past performance.

The latter element, past performance, is the only that does not apply to the first competitor reviewed our series, one who's yet to start a game entering his third season at the program, has played the position for just over a calendar year, and is best known as the 2010 Special Teams Player of the Year.

#10 – Cornerback Bennett Jackson

"Bennett is as talented a cornerback as I've ever coached. He has speed, he's long, athletic, can flip his hips," said Irish cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks. "The part that he's missing is just the experience part, which he got a little bit of that toward the back half of the season, but he still has to grow."

That growth is what the ranking is based upon, not to mention an alarming lack of experience at the cornerback positions this fall. Jackson was immediately lauded by the staff as a player ahead of his competitors this spring and made good on that evaluation, quickly nailing down the boundary starting role as the No. 1 punch in a two-man CB tandem.

Classmate Lo Wood (another first-time starter but natural CB) is expected to start opposite Jackson leaving untested sophomore backups Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Cam McDaniel as the only other available players at the position. Atkinson played mostly on special teams, McDaniel converted from running back in March, and Brown was withheld from action last season. Atkinson concluded the spring competing vs. Wood on the field side with Brown moving to the boundary.

Additionally, the gulf between Jackson and Brown at present is purportedly staggering.

Should Jackson go down, Brown wouldn't immediately step in. Instead, multiple changes would be necessary including a likely shift from safety for the unit's leader and most versatile player, Jamoris Slaughter. While that might sound enticing for fans, Slaughter's value is in his ability to move throughout the defense and not only wreak havoc near the line of scrimmage and against slot receivers, but to serve as a last line of defense in various packages.

A move to cornerback by Slaughter would be of great detriment to the defense as a whole, though he'd likely fair well playing his new role.

Nowhere near a finished product as a true junior and former wide receiver, Jackson nonetheless has the size, speed, tackling skill, and aggressive nature to be a very good college corner over the team's next 26 games.

"I saw a different approach in probably the last six games of the season," said Cooks of Jackson. "He started to practice like he was a No. 1 towards the back half (of 2011). Now he's continued to carry that attitude and continued to raise his game.

"More 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."

He's different in that he's a relatively sure thing among a group of unknowns, and a player that must remain on the field and develop for the Irish pass defense to improve from its unforeseen drop-off last fall.

Head coach Brian Kelly on the team's CB depth: Bennett and Lo have some experience, but certainly come in as the starting two corners. Cam will be in there with Jalen and Josh Atkinson. That's really your five man rotation. There's nobody coming in on a white horse. Those are the five guys. We can't trade for anybody, and so those five guys are going to be what we rely on at the cornerback position."

Next in the series: A veteran defensive end finds his way back on the list...

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