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March 20, 2012

Fighting the fight with five

Amidst much speculation about position changes and supplementing the lightly-populated cornerback position, Brian Kelly declared the Irish properly aligned and numbered, and ready for what promises to be a significant transition at a position manned by veterans in recent years.

First Darrin Walls left following the 2010 season, and now Robert Blanton and Gary Gray have left the nest. Add in the fact that early enrollee Tee Shepard is back in Fresno and no longer a piece to the cornerback puzzle.

The Irish begin spring drills Wednesday with a whole lot more hope and promise than experience and depth.

“We’re certainly short, there’s no question,” said Kelly of the cornerback position at his noon ET press conference Tuesday. “There’s no hiding the fact that we have a numbers issue there.

“But we’ll be smart in how we manage our reps. We’ll be smart in how we put those guys in positions. You know our philosophy and style of defense. We think we can be a championship team with the five guys we have there.”

Those five guys have never started a game for the Irish, and only two have logged any playing time at cornerback -- projected front-runners Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood -who saw way more time on special teams than they did subbing for Blanton and Gray during the 2011 season.

They’ll be joined by promising but inexperienced sophomores Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, neither of whom saw cornerback action last year, and classmate Cam McDaniel, who spent his first year playing running back and participating on special teams.

“That’s your five-man rotation,” Kelly said. “There’s nobody coming in on a white horse. Those are the five guys. We can’t trade for anybody, and those five guys will be (who) we rely on at the cornerback position.”

If Tommy Rees is starting on page 50 of the offensive playbook this spring because of his 16 previous starting assignments - as Kelly described the quarterback situation -- Jackson, Wood, Brown, Atkinson and McDaniel open up on page iv of the foreword, or in the early pages of chapter one at best.

“When you’re bringing in two new corners, I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to let them ease into it,” Kelly said. “Like anything else, we’ll give them more as they show they’re confident in their ability to do it.

“We’re not going to put them in very tough positions. We’re going to ask them to defend the post and we’ll rally with some plays on the perimeter.”

Kelly also squashed speculation of incoming freshman Davonte Neal arriving as a cornerback in the summer, although he did leave some wiggle room for some adjustments along the way.

“Not at this time,” said Kelly, when asked if an incoming freshman was under consideration to play cornerback upon his arrival this summer. “We moved Cam to feel more comfortable that we’ll get a chance to work with him in the spring.

“Now, could we move someone in camp? Certainly, but if we have an eye towards the fall, the guys who were in this room last night at our team meeting are going to impact that position more than a freshman.

“I wouldn’t rule out that we couldn’t move somebody there, but I feel more comfortable as the head coach that we get a chance to work with somebody in the spring than to throw somebody in there in camp.”

It all adds up to quite a bit of uncertainty, with the exception of Notre Dame’s starting point at cornerback come Wednesday morning.

“Bennett and Lo have some experience, and certainly come in as the two starting corners,” Kelly said.

The rest, including the solidification of those starting spots, is up for grabs.


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