No Fly Zone

Notre Dame is 11 games removed from the last passing touchdown thrown over the top of its supposedly suspect secondary. Under the guidance of third-year Irish assistant Kerry Cooks, its neophyte cornerback tandem ranks as one of many pleasant surprises on the 2012 undefeated Irish.

30 years ago, in a 1982 season that saw a Notre Dame's defense allow only 16 total touchdowns in 11 games, defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jim Johnson's unit surrendered just seven touchdown passes.

Over the next three decades, as passing games became more sophisticated and prevalent nationally, no Irish secondary matched that low total. Not the 1992 group with two future first round and one second round NFL draft picks; not the '93 group that saw seven defensive backs eventually drafted into the league, and not the playmaking quartet from a decade ago in 2002, one with its entire starting four drafted to NFL teams.

Unexpectedly it was the current 2012 cast, one with three former offensive recruits, and another player projected as a collegiate linebacker by that repeated the feat. Yet that same back line is still viewed by outsiders as the ugly step-child to their award-winning front seven defensive brethren.

"I think that those guys are smart enough to hear and see what everyone talks about, the front seven," said cornerbacks coach and Notre Dame's co-defensive coordinator, Kerry Cooks, "But they're also smart enough to know you can't have the No. 1 scoring defense if you've given up a lot of plays as a secondary. They know that they're a part of that. You can't have a top-notch, great defense, without a good secondary."

Like his players, Cooks cares little for outside perception. His chief goal is to win every snap regardless of the outcome of the previous. For Cooks, that means a continuous focus on player development.

"As a coach, what drives me is making sure these guys are the best that they can be. I've never been a stats guy so I'm certainly not going to start. My job is to develop these young men from a skill set and mental set to the best of their abilities," he said. "That's what drives me. It would drive me at 12-0 or 0-12, it wouldn't change."

That development included changing old habits of one former receiver, junior Bennett Jackson, and introducing an entirely new skill set to a former running back, freshman Keivarae Russell -- a tandem the would man the corners for the Irish defense through all 12 games of an undefeated regular season.

"He's night and day difference from what he was last spring to August camp," said Cooks of Jackson. "And its been a tough transition for him. He's used to running forward and doing everything from that standpoint, now he's flipped to DB where he hadn't played, so some of the small nuances he can only gain through experience.

"He's had his headaches and ups and downs, but through each he's learned and grown and is playing really good ball for us. At the end of the season, he's playing at a really high level."

So too is the Freshmen All-America selection Russell, who enjoyed the advantage -- at least in Cooks' eyes -- of a blank slate.

"Its been unbelievable. KeiVarae's a young man that you see the athleticism when he just runs around on the field. The ability to move his feet fast, to work laterally, flip his hips, and the timing of it. He's such a smart player. He hasn't even scratched the surface of what he's going to be," Cooks said.

"The biggest thing for me, the growth throughout the season is that he never stopped wanting to learn and he's still that way. He texts me every other day, 'Coach, what can I work on now?' He doesn't want to let his teammates down. Accountability, the will to be the best that he can be. All those things escalated throughout the season."

The desire to do things right might have been a touch more natural as Russell had no idea if he was doing anything wrong.

"We've actually talked about that as a staff: he had a clean slate," said Cooks of Russell who never played a snap at cornerback in high school. "He didn't know what was right and what was wrong. He didn't know what he was doing, so everything that he's learned now is for the first time. To his credit, he's taking it and he's tweaking it, which is part of being a good football player.

"I'm going to give you the fundamentals but then you have to fit it into your game, and that's what he started to do towards the back half of the season. And we gave him more on his plate."

The pair, along with former scout team receiver-turned starting safety Matthias Farley, and Notre Dame defensive player of they year award winner Zeke Motta, will have all it can handle on January 7, facing Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, he of the 26 touchdown pass vs. just three interceptions in 2012.

"You have to do your job. If everyone does their assignment and reads their key, then it's smooth sailing as far as knowing your responsibility," said Farley of combatting McCarron's passing in congress with the Tide's power running game. "Every snap is a new play. A fresh start. Lock into your key for that play."

MCarron's 66.7 percent completion percentage is due in part to the Alabama's aforementioned rushing attack, one that operates behind what is widely accepted as the nation's best offensive line.

"That might lull cornerbacks to sleep but we've faced teams like that," said Jackson of the Crimson Tide's run-first approach. "As a defensive back, you just read your keys, read the men on the line of scrimmage. It's technique and eyes and staying with your fundamentals."

In other words, staying true to the same teachings Cooks has imparted from day one.

(For a review of the seven passing touchdowns allowed by the Irish secondary in 2012, Click here.) Top Stories