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March 24, 2012

No longer backed into a corner


Every coach loves to have veteran players, such as Kerry Cooks had last season with cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Gary Gray.

Every young, aspiring football player would rather not have someone whose played three-to-four dozen games and logged hundreds of minutes ahead of him.

It makes the light at the end of the tunnel seem so far away.

Consider that light to be glaring in the faces of Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson, as well as Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown and even newly converted cornerback Cam McDaniel.

“The guys are awesome,” declared Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks. “Those guys, from the standpoint of having experience and really understanding the scheme of our defense and what we’re asking and the effort and the energy . . . those are the things we’re trying to coach them on right now. But I like everything those guys bring to the table. It’s just a matter of a lack of experience.”

Wood and Jackson sit atop the depth chart for Cooks, and if he has moments where he misses the veteran leadership of Blanton and Gray, he’s not letting on. Nothing stands in the way of Wood and Jackson emerging as legitimate, productive cornerbacks other than a lack of experience in battle, according to Cooks.

“Lo is probably ahead of most of our guys because he’s actually played cornerback for us,” Cooks said. “He took over 150 snaps for us last year. But he’s still got things he needs to work on. It’s a daily process to get those guys fundamentally right.

“Bennett is as talented a cornerback as I’ve ever coached. He’s long, he’s athletic, he can flip his hips . . . The part that he’s missing is the experience, which he got a little of towards the back half of the season. He’s still got to grow, but the first few days have been awesome. He’s out there talking, he’s vocal, he’s doing all the right things. I like where he is right now.”

Atkinson and Brown find themselves in a situation similar to that of Wood and Jackson a year ago, only Wood and Jackson do not have nearly the playing experience that Blanton and Gray did. Translation: there’s playing time to be had for the projected backups.

“They’ve got to be able to, one, understand our scheme because none of those guys played for us at the cornerback position,” said Cooks of Atkinson and Brown. “Then two, they’ve got to understand the urgency of our depth situation. We can’t wait on them. We need them to be great now, not in August.

“As long as they take that approach and they come every day to get better from a fundamental standpoint, from an understanding standpoint, from an urgency standpoint, and understand that everybody on defense is counting on them, then they’re going to be fine.”

Cooks has liked what he’s seen from McDaniel, who arrived at Notre Dame as a running back, where he played during his freshman season in 2011.

“He’s been awesome,” said Cooks of McDaniel after just two days at the new position. “His attitude has been great, and if you know anything about Cam, he’s just an awesome person.

“He’s athletic enough and tough enough and physical enough to come over there and do the job we need at corner, which is why we made the move. He’s been there for two days and he’s acted like he’s been there for two years. The only thing that stands out about him is from a technical standpoint, he doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, but he’ll get there.”

As for having just five scholarship cornerbacks, Cooks says he spends no time worrying about numbers.

“I don’t even look at it,” Cooks said. “I’ve got the guys I’ve got. If I had eight, I’d be happy; if I had four, if I had three…I’m going to coach the guys that I’ve got and the guys who want to be here.

“To me, having five scholarship corners allows guys to get a lot of reps, which means we’re building depth.”

The uphill battle continues, but perhaps the Irish won’t be painted into a corner with their cornerbacks after all.


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