Depth: Sought and Secured

Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks had two viable options on the corners last season. Times have changed…

What a difference a year makes.

Exactly 365 days ago, Notre Dame's cornerback crew consisted of 0 career starts, one injured projected starter, one true freshman, one redshirt freshman, and one player that's now headed of scout team duties at wide receiver.

Fast Forward to late August 2013 and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks can boast the following of his exiting new corps:

"I think we have some experienced guys in Bennett Jackson and Keivarae Russell. I feel very confident that Lo Wood coming back and having a good camp so far, is going to be able to play at a high level for us. And then we have some young guys that are doing some good things. Cole Luke is exceptionally savvy for an 18-year-old and has a great understanding for the game. Devin Butler is going to be prototype. At the end of the day, he's long, he's fast, he's smart.

And Rashad Kinlaw is a guy we took as an "athlete," who knows what he'll be. His potential is unlimited. He's fast, he's quick, he's big, he moves well. So I'm very pleased with how the cornerbacks have looked in camp heading into game week."

Last season, game week offered two realities: A.) Jackson and Russell would start, and B.) they wouldn't come out, at least not after the season's opening month.

"It's what I've been building to," said Cooks, now in his fourth year with the program. "I want to get to the point where I have enough depth, that if I have four corners I feel are at the same level, I have no issue with those guys rolling in and taking reps off of each other. If I have three, then let's roll three. I think we're to the point now where we feel confident and comfortable rolling guys out there."

The first guy likely to roll in, at least on the perimeter, is returning senior Lo Wood. Now 12 months removed from a ruptured Achilles tendon, Wood has progressed to the point he can be counted on as both a field and boundary contributor.

"He's been good. It took a minute for him to catch up mentally, just because when you don't play football that's the first thing that you lose, making those small adjustments to receivers and their splits and formations, but each day he's gotten better," said Cooks. "I don't think that there's a lot of hesitation, it doesn't look like he's thinking about it a lot, he's just out there focusing on his game and getting better every day."

Wood lost the starting role in ignominious fashion: by press conference announcement -- incumbent KeiVarae Russell named the starter by head coach Brian Kelly midway through what was thought to be the most hotly contested battle of training camp.

"I think KeiVarae has some tools that are God-given," said Cooks. "He's fast, he has a great ability to play man-to-man, his arms are long and he's a physical player. What he needed was experience. Now he definitely has some deficiencies that he needs to work on.

"But I wouldn't count Lo out of it. Like I tell them, you're all going to play. We don't have a problem making sure that if a guy is deserving of it, to play him. I think Lo has a place and he's going to do a lot of great things."

The Captain and the Rookie

13 starts, four interceptions, eight passes defended, a fourth-place finish among all tacklers in 2012, and long ago, a special teams player of the year award, kick return duties, and a college career begun as a wideout.

That's the resume of Bennett Jackson, one of Notre Dame's three team captains for 2013 and Cooks' most trusted unit member.

"I think he brings a lot of experience, he's been through everything that they're going through now. He's been a freshman that only played special teams. He's been in a backup role. He's been a guy that had to start his first game in a transition from a different position," said Cooks.

"I think Bennett is everything that we ask our players to be. For one, he leads by example the right way off the field and on the field. He's been a great example for what it takes to start off as a young guy and continue to develop and continue to strive. He's put himself in a position now to lead this team and lead this group and he's very deserving of that captainship."

One of those in need of his leadership -- including, it appears, between the lines on fall Saturdays -- will be true freshman Cole Luke, a player it appears has the inside track for the team's starting nickel role.

"All these guys are smart guys, but Cole is probably one of the smartest football players, just from understanding concepts, body position, the feel for the game, why you want to do this, that I've coached in my career," said Cooks. "We'll see how he reacts once he gets out there live, but that's why he's in a position where he's competing for a lot of different things right now. He's just a good, smart, savvy football player that has a great understanding for the game."

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco used former prep outside linebacker Elijah Shumate as his nickel man last fall. Shumate started like gangbusters (three passes defended vs. Michigan State and Michigan) and faded as the season progressed. Diaco will turn to a true cornerback for the important duties to begin 2013.

But he won't be thrown to the wolves as a multi-position player.

"I think the teaching is drilled down. We try to compartmentalize that piece," said Diaco of the defense's nickel back, a player charged with covering slot receivers in space. "I think if you're going to play a bunch of different roles it can be hard. But if we can focus on what his service is going to look like in 2013, then we can drill down on what he's fed.

"Not that the other jobs are any less important to his development, but if he's going to be (the nickel) and do that job, its a big job, and there's a lot of focus on it."

A work in progress, Cooks nonetheless believes the foundation is there for Luke to succeed immediately.

"Obviously his fundamentals aren't where they will be, but his knowledge of the game is. Maybe that's in part to having an uncle who played a long time in the NFL in Darren Woodson," said Cooks of the longtime Dallas Cowboys standout.

"He's always been around the game so he has some knowledge that a lot of kids that coming in as 18 year-olds don't have. He's put himself in position by understanding the game and being savvy, those things that you can't teach. He's got a great feel for the game and all the other stuff will come."

It'll have to come sooner rather than later, as first foe Temple has moved to a base three-receiver set, and Michigan's pro-style awaits in Week Two.

"We've grown our brotherhood," said the unit's leader Jackson. "Each individual has become more comfortable with one another. We hang out a lot more, communicate easier, there's no yelling, everyone talks to their mistakes. We practice at a high speed, motivating one another. Each unit does that, but when the secondary messes up, everyone is going to see it.

Irish fans hope they won't see it anytime soon.


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