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February 13, 2012

Irish DBs must turn the corner

With the title of co-defensive coordinator, Kerry Cooks will have much more on his plate in his third year at Notre Dame.

Nothing will be quite as filling, however, as his job of developing some young cornerbacks into consistent football players.

No Robert Blanton. No Gary Gray. Very little experience.

"We've got some talented guys back there," Cooks said. "They're going to be a little green, a little raw. But just seeing them in the weight room and the morning workouts, they're excited, they're intense and they're focused, and they understand they need to be ready right now.

"We can't give those guys a year. We can't give those guys until they're seniors to be ready. They have to be ready right now, by tomorrow, and that's the one thing I've been harping on all of those guys about."

Gray and Blanton combined for 96 games, 62 starts, nearly 400 tackles and 14 interceptions during their careers. Like all cornerbacks, they had moments where they were beaten and exposed by opposing receivers, particularly Gray. But they were a heady, experienced duo that was automatically penciled into the lineup for the better part of three seasons.

Now, it's up to Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, early entry Tee Shepard and whatever other player the coaching staff decides to shift there in the upcoming months to strike a balance in numbers between cornerback and safety.

"The spring for me is going to be about developing every cornerback and every safety's skill -- footwork, eye placement, progression, understanding of our defense…If we develop their skills and fundamentals, they're going to separate themselves," Cooks said.

"To me, it's all about developing those guys from a fundamental standpoint, and getting them to understand, 'Hey, this is what we're trying to get accomplished.' Once you've got that base, you're going to separate yourself naturally."

Here are Cooks' comments on the four returning cornerbacks.

Bennett Jackson"We had a pretty detailed conversation midway through the season, and to me, Bennett has always been one of the most talented guys on the team, and I've coached a lot of defensive backs. He's got all the tools you could want - he's long, he's athletic, he's fast, he's smart.

"But his motivation on the field, his passion and intensity on the field to take that next step, was missing. So we had a conversation about certain things that he needed to do in order to increase his playing time, like practicing harder, finishing plays, being a leader, not being the third, fourth, fifth guy in the drill. He started doing those things and taking his role a little more seriously, and he started practicing better, he started playing better, and then his role increased.

"Now he knows because he had the example in front of him in Robert and Gary: how to come practice, how to come to work, how important is film study…But he wasn't mature enough at that point to take that next step forward. Now he understands what it takes. He's not there yet, but he has a picture as to what it takes to be great. Now he can take that into the spring, summer and fall, and hopefully it's a continued progression of getting better and understanding that it takes a lot of hard work to be great."

Lo Wood"The thing with Lo is that we are continuously harping on him to be physical and aggressive. We want him to be a dominant player for us. It's all a progression, and it's hard when you have two good guys like Gary and Robert in front of him.

"When Lo went in, he performed well. He's the most experienced corner returning. He's got to take a leadership role. His mentality has got to be that he's going to set the tone with his work ethic, and then continuing to learn the defense."

Josh Atkinson "One of the fastest players back there, but he was a little raw. As a high school kid, all they did was line up and play bump and run. So when you come to the defense we run, you've got to be able to do multiple things. You've got to be able to play a half, play a third, roll down and play some cover two and some man. Those can be challenging.

"Football is probably the most important thing in his life, and to his credit, he displays that every day. He's going to be fine because from a talent standpoint, he's got all the tools. When will it click for him mentally? He's got to learn so many things, but he's making progress.

"He's a physical player and as far as tackling ability and being aggressive and wanting to get his hands on wide receivers, he may be the most physical corner we have back there. But you've got to be able to understand the concepts and schemes that we're trying to get done. You can't just play bump and run and be physical, or cover two and be physical. He's got to be able to play off, he's got to be able to play up, he's got to be able to roll to a half, roll to a third…all those things are things he needs to continue to progress with."

Jalen Brown"His progression has been awesome. We knew what we had from an athletic standpoint on tape. Obviously watching him as a high school player, he was a kid that hadn't quite grown into his body, and he's still doing that.

"But you can see his movement, change of direction, footwork, he's more purposeful in what he's doing now. He's got a chance to be a really good player for us if he continues to take that next step."


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