14 football seasons later, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks is charged with preparing new starters Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson for a schedule that includes three lead Heisman Trophy candidates among its opposing quarterbacks, and a whopping 10 returning starters at the position.
Cooks spoke with Irisheyes.com at Thursday's media day about the progress of both Wood and Jackson, as well as their understudies, and what it takes for a cornerback, young or old, to succeed at Notre Dame.
Cooks on Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson"Its unbelievable, and I don't want to jinx him. Whatever he did this summer, besides getting bigger, stronger, faster from that standpoint, he's playing with that edge," said Cooks of Wood. "And you really can't coach it. He's coming with an edge, playing with confidence, you can't tell him he's not as good as whoever steps on the field. As long as he keeps that up, he's being very competitive but also showing the young guys what it takes to be a really, really good solid corner."
"Lo is obviously our most experienced player in terms of live reps. Bennett got a little experience toward the back half of the season, but he carries himself like he's played two or three years as a starter around here," he offered of Jackson. "He's another kid that doesn't lack for confidence, he's very athletic as a converted wide receiver over to defensive back.
"He knows one of the things he has is speed, and he's long, and he's a smart player, so you have those attributes and the rest comes pretty easy."
Cooks also noted Jackson's additional experience as a member of the team's kick coverage and return units in 2010 and in kick and punt coverage last year.
"Let's say he takes 150-200 snaps on ST, that's game experience that a redshirt wouldn't have to feel what its like to play in a game. There's no doubt those snaps and all that experience counts and helps him mature into the player he's becoming now."
Second Unit SearchAlso serving as the team's co-defensive coordinator, Cooks' primary mission in August was nonetheless to find a suitable pair of backup corners should either Wood or Jackson succumb to injury.
"The biggest trust factor for us is consistency. We put someone on the field and we know he's not going to give up that big play," said Cooks. "Because anywhere you play on that back end, if you don't get the call or line up the long way or your one step off or you're late opening up your hips, then you're giving up a big play. We want to see a guy that has some consistency, that will play with some confidence, and a guy that will be a playmaker back there for us.
"These guys aren't young anymore, Jalen (Brown) and Josh (Atkinson), we don't consider them young. They've been in our system long enough to be able what we're asking them to get done. Now we need to see it on the field."
On converted running back and true freshman Keivarae Russell: "Keivarae Russell does not look out of place. He does not look like a freshmen there. He's going to be a guy that's going to contribute, I don't know how much or where, but if he doesn't contribute somewhere this season on the back end…I'm not going to let that happen.
"He's playing so well as a freshman, I told Josh and Jalen, you've been here two years, Keivarae has been here two months. His knowledge and understanding for the game, he's one of those guys that's really savvy, really smart, and he's got really good athletic ability to go along with that.
"He's going to be a special player as long as he continues to develop."
Cooks added the team's emphasis on more 11-on-11 work in practice has helped bring along the secondary as well as the team's quarterbacks and wide receivers.
"Well its been more contact, more articulated work between the offense and defense and when you do something like that, everyone's getting better. You see days where the defense dominates and you see days where the offense does and days where it breaks even. As long as you have that competitive spirit on both sides of the ball, everyone is getting better.
"There's a lot left to be done, we've still got a couple of weeks to prepare, we'll squeeze every inch and ounce out of it that we can as far as right alignments, understanding the game plan, so there's a lot left. "
Work always remains for a group whose back end mistakes allow opponents to strike up the band.