Half of the whole

Notre Dame's 2014 starting secondary and regular rotation is far from set, but there are two veteran competitors that have distanced themselves from the youth-filled pack.

Notre Dame secondary coach Kerry Cooks is in search of a handful of essential traits for his meeting room.

Athleticism will always be welcomed, though it's often mitigated by the inexperienced mind.

Physicality is desired, as is an aggressive bent and the innate ability to adjust on the fly and to understand the big picture of a modern defensive scheme.

And of course, especially for a defensive back, a little arrogance never hurts.

Cooks has all of the above in junior cornerback Keivarae Russell, one of Notre Dame's three best football players exiting spring ball 2014. And he sees a health dose of those same traits in the oldest member of the Irish defense as well.

"I love KeiVarae Russell, I'm a little spoiled with him," said Cooks when asked who "puts a smile on his face" during practice. "And Austin Collinsworth. Those are the two guys, they've got experience, been in our system for awhile. They're at a different level. The other guys have to keep coming."

There are plenty of other guys, but Russell, a potential All-American, and Collinsworth, a certain starter and leader, set the current standard.

Russell improved greatly as a tackler last season

Combined they've started 37 games over the last two seasons (Russell 26 straight, Collinsworth 11 of 13 last fall) despite Collinsworth's absence for the entire 2012 campaign. Combined the pair leads, both by example and sage words of advice, and they possess a decided advantage in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's new scheme:

Their football intelligence is off the charts.

"Some guys are repetition guys," said Cooks of his remaining backfield troops. "Some guys like KeiVarae and Austin, it's, 'Okay, that's what that is? Oh I got that.' And it just takes one time. Some guys need to see it five times. Some guys need to see it 30 times."

Though he struggled at times in downfield coverage before stark improvement in the season's second half, Collinsworth enjoyed a unique statistical combination last fall, leading the team in interceptions while finishing third behind Prince Shembo and Stephon Tuitt in quarterback hurries.

He's a strong safety in VanGorder's scheme with sophomore Max Redfield working at free safety -- a position that requires more one-on-one coverage responsibilities.

The ultra-confident Russell likes what he sees in the new scheme, particularly the press coverage requirement for the team's cornerbacks.

"Previous years we'd give up certain routes depending on what the defensive scheme was," said Russell. "This year, you compete on every route. There's no routes they get easily. If they catch something, it better be a difficult catch. Make them work. And that's how I feel, my mindset is like that. That's why I prefer to play press man."

Cooks enjoys teaching it as well, though he understands the inherent give-and-take.

"You have to be willing," he began, "It's not a bend-but-don't break defense. You're going to give up some big plays but you're going to create a lot of big plays, too."

Collinsworth's steady presence doubtless ensures fewer of the former and potentially more of the latter. His performance this spring belies his (comparative) athletic gifts.

Collinsworth and Shembo combined for one of the defense's rare big plays last fall.

"Smart player, man. Smart player," said Cooks of the fifth-year senior. "You see it all the time. You look at Austin, again, not the most talented kid. But if you can get the defense lined up, and you can communicate, and you can think (quickly), then you can play fast -- that's Austin Collinsworth.

"And that's what's enabled him to be light years ahead of everybody else. Not to say those other guys won't catch up to him, but right now, you make a call and he's on it, he's on it. He knows checks, He knows formations, he knows adjustments, he knows body position, he knows leverage, he has anticipation. He has all the things you need to be a solid safety when your athleticism is not unique."

Russell's is, and his improvement from early September 2013 through season's end was striking, from fewer missed tackles (Russell estimated there were 40 in 2012, his rookie year, to less than half that number last season. Cooks added, "He was a great tackler for us last year.") to more plays on the ball. The latter a key skill set for the 2014 secondary.

"The challenge (in press coverage) is sometimes simply that it's a mismatch," said Cooks of the preponderance of one-on-one battles his corners will face. "Sometimes we have (6'0") Cole Luke going against (6'5") Corey Robinson, so (Luke) has to be great at the line of scrimmage. You have to be ready to compete with receivers running down the field while you're leaning on his body, so you have to make sure you have body control and to be in the proper position to do things like that."

And that's where arrogance comes in.

"You have to have a short-team memory," said Cooks of a successful cornerback. "Obviously athletic traits: being able to flip your hips, run, recovery speed, things like that. Give me an arrogant player at that position, you have a chance. (Former Irish cornerback and nickel) Robert Blanton ran a 4.7 (40-yard dash) at the combine and he's going on his third year in the NFL. Arrogant kid. And I don't say that in a bad way. You guys know that."

Asked where Russell fell on that borderline, Cooks laughed, "He's over it. He's over it."

But after a 2013 season in which the secondary took notable steps backward from 2012 (fewer turnovers created, far more touchdowns surrendered), a little group humility might be necessary as well.

Regardless, change has been welcomed.

"The thing that VanGorder brings, obviously everyone here thinks they're going to go to the NFL, so it's an easy sell once you've actually coached it to bring it to the college level," said Cooks. "Kids want to be in that aggressive (style), they want to be in an NFL system, so it's an easy sell and our kids have had complete buy-in to it."

With two of them fully assimilated.

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