Spring Wrap: Cornerbacks

Our post-spring position review series moves to the Irish secondary and an examination of the team's cornerbacks. In this, the ninth of 10 columns in the Irisheyes.com's "Incomplete" series, O'Malley explains who stood out this spring, who's a step behind, and if a fourth cornerback can earn trust on the perimeter next fall.

Cornerbacks -- Depth To Return?

From the current five-player crop, only senior Bennett Jackson will exhaust his eligibility at season's end. Notre Dame will have eight scholarship cornerbacks when a trio of freshmen arrive in June. They began the summer 2012 workout session with just four.

Spring Pecking Order: Jackson missed spring ball after shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum, an injury he played through for the entire 2012 campaign. In his stead stepped classmate Lo Wood, whose remarkable (seven-month) recovery from Achilles surgery put the senior back in position to compete for a starting role in August camp. Sophomore Keivarae Russell, a freshman All-America selection last fall as a 13-game starter, rounds out the "starting unit." Significantly behind that trio is the junior tandem of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown.

Spring Star: Wood for his way-ahead-of-schedule return. The senior's progress was slowed in the spring's final week and he was advised that discretion and rest might be better than fighting through the last few sessions of spring practice. Both defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and co-coordinator/cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks lauded Wood for his efforts.

Both Atkinson and Brown had the opportunity to take a major step forward with Wood recovering and Jackson out but it appears neither made headway in the battle for one of the top three cornerback spots heading into summer training.

Aid on the Way: Four-star prospect Cole Luke as well as a pair of three-star athletes in Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw, the latter will convert from quarterback to cornerback as he enters the program.

Remaining Questions after the Spring:

Can Brown or Atkinson become a viable No. 4 next fall? Can Wood maintain his recovery in order to challenge for a starting or rotation/starting role? Will Jackson be ready to hit by August camp? Can the Brown/Atkinson duo hold off promising freshman cover man, Cole Luke? Can Atkinson avoid excessive interference penalties in August that plagued him in both March and April scrimmages? Has Brown improved in his ability to perform as a zone cornerback, a necessity in the Irish defensive scheme?

Final Thoughts

What a difference nine months makes. At this point last April, Wood and Jackson were the two veterans -- neither had started a game -- Russell was considered a running back; running back Cam McDaniel a cornerback, and the program's highest-rated corner prospect Tee Shepard had recently transferred to parts unknown. Now the Jackson, Russell, Wood trio could be the program's best threesome since Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray played top-notch football in Brian Kelly's first season (Gray bottomed out in 2011)…

Expect a three-man rotation for two spots, with Jackson the most likely to bounce back and forth from field to boundary cornerback…Russell was a boundary most of last fall and Wood is more of a field cornerback, and should remain there, at least in early September as he works off the rust from a season away…

None of the three will necessary be the team's "nickel" defender -- I'm not sure there's a slot corner in the group, but they can all play perimeter positions…There exists a major drop-off between the trio and the backup pair of Atktinson and Brown…Expect a Cole Luke sighting by late September as the defensive back seven grows as a unit…Butler and Kinlaw could see early action on special teams, though it'd be nice if one had a year of eligibility preserved…Can Atkinson's speed be harnessed in key special teams roles? The "starting" trio of corners will likely aid safety Matthias Farley in guiding the secondary as Notre Dame breaks in a new starter opposite Farley next fall…

Jackson (fast, aggressive, rugged), Russell (athletic, rugged and Wood (technically sound, rugged), give defensive coordinator Bob Diaco matchup options, both week-by-week and as games progress. That's a luxury the young Irish back line did not have in 2012.

Later this morning: Our spring wrap-up series concludes with a look at the Irish safeties ...

Intro to Series

A key defensive line prospect. The nation's best high school linebacker. Two punters (phew!). The offense's quickest player. Two of the defense's three best cornerbacks. One of its three best inside linebackers. Two of its five best safety prospects. Two running backs capable of winning weekly roles. Two freshmen pass targets (one already on campus) capable of filling in at the back end of the rotation. Countless special teams contributors.

The list of potential -- and in many cases, certain -- 2013 commodities not involved in Saturday's quirky Blue Gold Game ranks as one of the spring game's most relevant stories, and leads to my final grade on head coach Brian Kelly's Irish as they exit a 15-session, five-week spring:


Just as it did in 2012 -- a national runner-up season and the best in 19 years for the program -- Notre Dame's 2013 football team will be made whole by its first-time scrimmage contributors.

That list last fall included major contributions from the likes of Tony Springmann, Danny Spond, KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Sheldon Day, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and of course, Everett Golson.

"We're also going to bring in a number of freshmen that I'm certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys," said Kelly during his spring wrap-up press conference. "You've got (Michael) Deeb and (Doug) Randolph and Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield just to name a few. We've got some guys coming in, some DBs, in (Devin) Butler and (Rashad) Kinlaw. There is going to be an influx of talented guys that can help us in that area."

And from scrimmage as well, not only the freshmen, but those returning from injury, little-used players from 2012, and a host of others. The only guarantee for 2013 is that September's lot of key contributors will differ -- perhaps greatly -- from November's.

Published to Date:

Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Offensive Line
Defensive Line
Outside Linebackers
Inside Linebackers

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories