Camp Packet: Cornerbacks

Need-to-know items, top talents, question marks, buzz, position battles -- our camp preview packets catch you up to speed. Next in the series: the cornerbacks

Returning Regulars: Senior Bennett Jackson and sophomore Keivarae Russell

Rookies -- Relative and Otherwise: Senior Lo Wood, juniors Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, freshman Cole Luke. Luke's classmates Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw are presumed headed for an initial evaluation at safety, though due to heavy veteran numbers at that position, Butler might work 2013 as a cornerback.

Position Coach -- Kerry Cooks: Enters his fourth season with the program and second as co-defensive coordinator. Cooks joined head coach Brian Kelly's staff in January 2010 as the outside linebackers coach but spent most of his time tutoring the veteran cornerback trio of Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, and early enrollee freshman Lo Wood. The former NFL safety guided an Irish cornerback crew that was responsible for just four of the seven passing touchdowns yielded by the defense in 12 regular season games last fall. Prior to his arrival, Notre Dame's secondary was chiefly responsible for a whopping 14 of 17 surrendered in 2009.

Established Star: Bennett Jackson. A touch underrated nationally (he was left off a 40+ player Thorpe Award watch list this summer), Jackson was outstanding for most of the 2012 season and after a rough first half vs. Alabama, began to hold his own as most of the Irish defense crumbled around him.

Camp Buzz: Surrounds one of the more competitive position battles on the 2013 squad as incumbent KeiVarae Russell attempts to hold off senior Lo Wood for the starting field role. Wood secured the position prior to suffering a ruptured Achilles last August. Russell then leapt ahead of then-sophomores Atkinson and Brown on the depth chart and proceeded to start every game, earning first-team freshman All-America honors in the process.

Overmatched throughout the BCS championship loss to Alabama, the athletic Russell and technically sound Wood will both play regularly this season in base, nickel, and dime packages -- but only one can start. It's more a badge of honor than definitive status on the team, as every modern defense needs three, if not four cornerbacks. (Credit to Jackson, Russell, the Irish safeties, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and defensive coaches Cooks and Bob Elliott for the miracle of 2012, when Notre Dame played the bulk of the season with just its starting pair.)

Russell excelled as a tackler in zone coverage last season. Wood shares that skill set. This battle will come down to the ability to win against receivers on contested throws, not only in August, but through September.

The Pressure is on… Josh Atkinson. Unlike his classmate Brown, Atkinson's eligibility clock began after he graced the field as a true freshman vs. Navy in mid-season 2011. He's since struggled to secure a game day role, playing competitive minutes (and playing well) vs. Michigan State last season, but at no other time appearing capable of holding his own on a championship defense. He enters his third season of eligibility as a two-deep backup (the No. 4 cornerback) after improvement in the spring -- but he's a long way from the field or from securing his spot over Brown and incoming talent in Cole Luke.

(Another) Battle is Between… The freshman Luke and the junior pair. Luke is a future starter -- can he supplant Atkinson and Brown in the 2013 two-deep? He could use about 15 more pounds of armor to compete in Diaco's heavy zone scheme, but no Irish corner possesses the natural coverage skills of the four-star prospect Luke.

Wither? Jalen Brown. With three seasons of eligibility remaining (2011 redshirt), Brown has a leg up on Atkinson in terms of his future. But the 2013 squad would like to employ a fourth cornerback, and Brown purportedly struggles with zone schemes (he's been lauded by both Kelly and former star receiver Michael Floyd for the ability to compete man-to-man). With three freshmen defensive backs joining the squad and only Jackson exiting the program after the season, 2013 is a crossroads campaign for a player that most felt would win a two-deep role in the spring.

BCS Dreams Because... The Irish pass defense allowed one touchdown over the top of its secondary during the 2012 regular season, and that was courtesy Navy in the season opener. From that group, only FS Zeke Motta graduated, and the re-acclimation of Wood plus a host of talented, younger safeties gives Notre Dame a deeper secondary and more options.

Cause for Pause: Motta left a hole at an important position, as raw, yet-to-be-developed talent rarely trumps talent + experience along the back line…Russell was worked over in the BCS Championship game…Wood struggled throughout his career to defend the deep ball down field…Jackson's surgically repaired shoulder will again take a beating on the boundary this fall…Brown and Atkinson couldn't beat out Irish linebackers or a true freshman safety for a nickel role last fall…Luke could be too light as an incoming freshman to contribute regularly…One-on-one coverage abilities are not proven among any of the Irish cornerbacks.

Take it to the bank: Jackson will lead the team in interceptions this season.


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