A mixed bag has presented at the position through the first five seasons of Kelly’s tenure but an unfortunate past circumstance has the 2015 starting tandem poised for a nationally relevant campaign.The Elite: Robert Blanton – Surprised?
Blanton suffers from starring during a two-season span largely forgotten by Irish fans – that’s the effect of a pair of nondescript seasons and 8-5 end results will do for an era that precedes a championship run thereafter.
But for the *first 11 games of the 2011 season, Blanton ranked on film as the team’s best football player: Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, Manti Te’o…tick off the names, Blanton performed his job better than the lot, and that job often included moving from the perimeter (field cornerback) to nickel on third down.
(*Blanton played through a stress fracture in his foot against two teams that were able to take advantage of him late – Andrew Luck and Stanford and the Florida State Seminoles – and his coverage suffered as a result.)
Does he belong among the Elite? Let’s put it this way: If every defender on Notre Dame’s team plays at Blanton’s 2011 level in 2015, the Irish will go undefeated and not be challenged in the regular season.
Standouts/Difference Makers: Cole Luke, KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs – Riggs was outstanding prior to a Game Eight injury against Navy last season. Notre Dame didn’t win another game in the regular season thereafter as he and, famously, Joe Schmidt, were sidelined. (Riggs played sparingly two weeks later but couldn’t’ continue with a stress fracture in his foot.)
Russell started the first 26 games of his Irish career before suspension and is expected to return this fall as one of the team’s best overall players, but in terms of on field performance to date, I’ll take Cole Luke’s true sophomore season performance of 2014 over Russell’s true sophomore performance of 2013.
Russell deserves credit for his amazing rookie season, a 2012 effort in which he moved from running back in the summer to starting cornerback for a 12-1 squad.
Quality Starters: Bennett Jackson, Darrin Walls – Walls wasn’t as physical as the staff wanted as a field cornerback but he was a sticky cover man during his only season under the tutelage of Kelly and former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco…Jackson played hurt in 2013 and it showed, but he was a sound defender and playmaker as a 2012 junior for one of the best defenses in Notre Dame history. (Jackson was the second-best defensive back that season behind safety Zeke Motta.)
Aided the Cause: Gary Gray – Best remembered for a tragic outing in Ann Arbor in 2011 and a sub par season thereafter, Gray was also a rugged boundary cornerback for Kelly’s first Irish squad in 2010, and among the defense’s top five players per our film reviews that fall.
Couldn’t Carve A Niche: E.J. Banks, Spencer Boyd, Lo Wood, Jalen Brown, Josh Atkinson, Tee Shepard, Rashad Kinlaw -- Yeesh. Where to begin? In order: Transfer, transfer, injury/transfer post-graduation, ineffective, ineffective then injured, transfer, dismissal.
Among the group, Wood showed well in August 2012 before suffering a torn ACL while Shepard arrived on campus a five-star talent but never officially joined the team as a January 2012 enrollee…Notre Dame’s miss rate on the remaining prospects in this group is staggering.
On Deck for 2015: Nick Watkins – Lauded by former secondary coach Kerry Cooks for his man-to-man coverage skills, Watkins caught the eye of KeiVarae Russell early last August as well. He’ll have an opportunity to learn from Russell, Luke, and new defensive backs coach Todd Lyght as a valuable No. 3 corner this fall.
Finding a Foothold this Fall? Devin Butler – The sophomore’s November trial-by-fire in Riggs’ stead last year did not go well, but Butler’s experience against some of the nation’s best receivers over a five-game span (Jaelen Strong, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor) should have him prepared for prime time this fall.
Butler is poised to be a valuable No. 4 corner as a junior, ascending to No. 3 in 2016 while also starting on all four Irish run teams (KR/KO, PR/Punt) over the next two seasons.
On the Horizon: Shaun Crawford, Ashton White, Nick Coleman – Crawford could serve as a part-time nickel this season while White and Coleman can learn the ropes behind four upperclassmen.
Why They’re No. 8: Mistakes.
When running backs make a mistake, they lose yardage. When cornerbacks make mistakes, the opponent strikes up the band.
Opposing bands played far too often in 2011, 2013, and over the final two months of 2014 as a result of coverage errors/shortcomings.
But the 2015 tandem of Russell and Luke is, on paper, the best at the program since 2002 when Shane Walton and Vontez Duff made game-changing plays for Tyrone Willingham’s only intriguing Irish squad.
Note: The ninth-best overall position group of the Kelly era…