Rewind if you will, Irish fans, to three years ago this week. The midpoint of August Camp 2012 and news that projected starter Lo Wood was lost for the season due to a torn Achilles tendon.
Wood and junior classmate Bennett Jackson were set to start as the team’s cornerbacks after two seasons spent in reserve. Sophomore backups Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown were slated to supply support and running backs Cam McDaniel and KeiVarae Russell were moved to the defensive side of scrimmage to add depth – McDaniel in the spring, Russell upon arrival in the summer.
(As an aside, now is the time you ask yourself, “How did this team go 12-0?”)
The aforementioned loss of Wood was seen as a death knell. Could Atkinson step up? What about Brown?
No, no, and no.
Instead it was the loquacious Russell that won the job, was subsequently thrown to the fray and eventually became part of the best defense at the program since its championship unit 25 seasons prior.
Notre Dame operated with Jackson and Russell playing nearly every snap over the season’s final 10 contests. Jackson played through a separated shoulder for three months while Russell endured and overcame the requisite growing pains. No other corner was trusted to compete at the team’s championship level by the time South Bend’s leaves turned brown.
Times have changed.
It was the unit first lauded by Irish head coach Brian Kelly following his team’s initial practice of 2015. “I liked all the young kids out there. They just all showed up in one-on-ones today, the way they competed. Breaking on the ball, it was fast, it was active and it was deep. Sometimes we (used to) run out of gas in one-on-ones, we went 10 minutes today and that was a big difference for us.”
Russell and returning junior starter Cole Luke are the marquee names, but it’s their supporting cast that might matter most. The difference between today and 2012 (and 2013 and 2014) is the unit’s depth. It’s not merely a matter of numbers, but rather an apparent collection of quality.
“They’re all very competitive. It brings a different side of things,” said Luke of his young charges. “As a corner you're going to get beat every now and then. That's whatever. You have to be ready to (bounce back) and they are.”
There remains a clear delineation between the team’s starting tandem of Luke and Russell and quintet of scholarship corners behind them, but the youth-filled five have made waves.
There’s Nick Watkins, now the clear-cut No. 3 as a sophomore after his spring battle with 2014 emergency starter Devin Butler. There’s the diminutive Shaun Crawford, likely the understudy to 5th-year senior Matthias Farley as a nickel player this fall, plus freshman classmate Nick Coleman, who worked in front of Butler at practice with the No. 2 unit on Thursday.
And there’s fellow frosh Ashton White, physically the most ready of the trio for the grind of a football season. Each could earn a monogram on special teams. Each will fight for a two-deep role: four quality corners with one spot available to support Russell, Luke, and Watkins.
“I think it'll be a great advantage for when we play teams that use a fast tempo so we can just keep everyone fresh,” said Luke. “We can sub corners out who have just as high of a level of play as the starters do.”
Three decades later those words still ring true. As much as football has changed, one reality remains:
If you need one guy, instead of two, to cover a receiver, the defense has the upper hand. If not, it’s advantage: offense.
Notre Dame might have two guys up to that task in Russell and Luke. They have one that’s certain of it.
“Coach (Todd) Lyght said it’s easy to coach a guy like me, because I’m athletic and I have experience,” said Russell. “I told him I want to get to the point he was: be an All-American, get all the awards, and also help these guys win games.
“Because if I reach my goals, I think it will make us better. If I'm the best corner I can possibly be, I think the defense can do great things.”
They didn’t do great things last season – no Notre Dame football team gave up more points over an eight-game span than VanGorder’s first edition Irish.
A rash of key injuries, a crisis of confidence as a result, and a season-long case of and paralysis by analysis seemed to be the chief causes of the touchdown-fest suffered at the likes of North Carolina, Arizona State, and USC (et al).
“The scheme was definitely hard to get used to when (VanGorder) got here, but now we know it like the palm of our hand,” said Luke.
“It used to be, you get the call; you know your job. Now you know yours, his (the other corner), the D-Line, why, where you fit. It’s a defense built on knowing everyone's job around you. It's one of those developmental things. (You can) base on down and distance, personnel. You understand ‘why’?”
“And the freshmen are doing a great job with it.”
So is the other new guy on VanGorder’s block, he of the 26 career starts.
“I've watched every game back-to-back on my playbook on my I-Pad,” said Russell. “I know our defense.”
Knowing was half the battle last season.
The other half awaits.