Potential 5th-year senior: None
Seniors: Josh Atkinson (2014) and Jalen Brown (2015). Atkinson moved to wide receiver last fall after spending two seasons on the corner. With at least nine wide receivers expected on the roster for 2014, a move back might be in the offing.
Junior: Keivarae Russell (2015)
Incoming Freshmen: Nick Watkins (6'1" 188)
Potential 2014 Class Additions: Terrence Alexander (5'10" 180). A three-star prospect from power program John Curtis Christian (River Ridge, LA), Alexander will make an official visit to campus on January 17. He recently visited Stanford, will visit Mississippi on January 24, and make his decision on National Signing Day (February 5).
Brown was suspended along with the since-departed George Atkinson for Notre Dame's 2013 Pinstripe Bowl contest for a violation of team rules. His reinstatement, while pending, is likely. After playing in seven games in 2012 (including the season-finale at USC), Brown appeared in just two last fall, Michigan and Air Force.
2014-15: The Case for ContinuityRussell's spot is cemented, though whether he'll work to the more physically demanding boundary side or cover the open spaces of the field likely won't be determined this spring. But with 26 starts under his belt, the junior-to-be is ready to take his game from improved in 2013 (after a rough start) to elite status.
"I showed my development in my man-to-man over the last two years. I think I showed the country that I can play man-to-man with the best of them," Russell said. "I'm going to try to keep developing that in the off-season and become one of the best." As important, Russell views the returning pieces of the defensive backfield as an athletic collection that will play far better football than their 2013 predecessors.
"A lot of our young guys played a lot this year, and I'm coming back my third year starting," said Russell. "We're going to have a lot of experience along the back this year: (Safeties) Matthias (Farley), Austin, (Collinsworth), Elijah Shumate. I think we're going to be a damn good secondary.
"I've been to a national championship game, this game (Pinstripe Bowl)," he continued. "People that are younger can look up to me. They can look up to me and listen to me, trust in us and we can work together as a unit.
"I think we're going to be a freaky athletic back end for sure in that secondary."
Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke
Key to that end is the emergence of both Luke and Butler, both of whom played coverage roles in the team's dime defensive package used regularly in October and November. Both likewise found rotation time behind Jackson and Russell as true freshmen.
While Luke has the pedigree, Butler's aggressiveness is appreciated by Kelly and the Irish staff. While the former is a more natural cover man, they're on equal footing entering Year 2.
"Both of those freshman corners have shown not only the physical ability but the mental capacity to be able to go in there and compete," said Kelly.
And both will play often, in the base defense (a job share opposite Russell isn't unlikely), in the dime, and likely as the team's nickel back should the 2014 defense employ the package it abandoned after a rough September filled with third down errors.
Freshman to the Fore? Can incoming freshman Nick Watkins beat out the senior Brown (and possibly Brown's classmate Josh Atkinson should he return to the defensive backfield)? Watkins will doubtless be given ample opportunity as a four-year prospect is much more enticing to an Irish defensive staff vs. a pair of seniors yet to make an impact.
The freshmen's stiffest competition could from from Rashad Kinlaw, a sophomore (redshirt-freshman) that spent much of his time as a scout team quarterback last fall.
But a change in defensive scheme provides disparate realities, one for the senior, one for the rookies.
1.) For Brown, a new scheme could better utilize his purported strength: man-to-man coverage.
2.) Conversely, a new scheme means Brown has only a mild leg up on Watkins and Kinlaw in terms of understanding the defense and bringing the playbook to the playing field.
To be blunt: Brown's December 28 suspension won't help him in the pecking order. Look for Watkins to follow in the footsteps of Luke last year and earn a two-deep job by the season's opening contest.
Final Grade and Projections
2013: C … Senior captain Bennett Jackson was victimized far too often after a breakout 2012 season…Russell struggled early, notably at Michigan in defeat, but improved greatly as the season progressed, often taking Jackson's boundary position to match up with the opponent's top (or more physical) target…Freshman bright spots Luke and Butler will benefit greatly from their trial-by-fire covering collegiate slot receivers last fall.
2014: B … Russell should perform as well as did Jackson in 2012 (minimum) or potentially as well as Robert Blanton in 2011, the best CB effort of the Kelly era. Luke and Butler will take their lumps but with nearly 26 games of combined experience, likely deliver plenty -- along with big plays -- as well. Watkins is intriguing as a No. 4 cornerback though he'll have to beat senior Jalen Brown.
2015: A- … Russell will be a four-year starter while Luke and Butler will have two seasons of action under their belts including plenty of starts from 2014…Watkins will be the no-doubt fourth man entering the season and the Irish will need two more cornerbacks in the 2015 cycle to fill out a promising three-deep.