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August 25, 2013

From desperate to depth

It would be easy to look at Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell in action today and wonder what all the commotion was about.

One year ago, Jackson had never started a game at cornerback in his collegiate career; Russell had never played a game - period! - at this level, let alone at cornerback.

Thirteen games, a national title run and a whole bunch of success has flipped the scales for Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame’s fourth-year cornerbacks coach.

“It’s a lot more comforting for me knowing that I’ve got some guys with experience,” Cooks said. “Last year was kind of unknown. I had two guys that were starting for the first time, and one was a true freshman. You just never know how they’re going to react the first time they hit the field.”

Not only did Jackson and Russell combine for 26 starting assignments, they played 26 productive games for the Irish, finishing third and fifth on the team in tackles (65 by Jackson, 58 by Russell) with six interceptions (four by Jackson) and a dozen passes defensed (eight by Jackson).

The Irish cornerbacks went from inexperienced to highly productive seemingly overnight, including the evolution of Jackson into a 2013 tri-captain.

“Bennett exudes everything that we ask our players to do,” Cooks said. “He leads by example the right way off the field as well as on the field. He’s been a great example of what it takes to start out as a young guy and to continue to develop and strive, and he’s put himself in position now to lead this team. He’s very deserving of that captainship.”

Even more meteoric was Russell’s rise, particularly since he arrived at Notre Dame with an extensive background as an offensive skill position player and virtually no concept of the cornerback position.

“When we (got) KeiVarae last year, he really didn’t know much about defense,” Cooks said. “He had been an offensive player for most of his career, so we did a lot of things as a staff to take some pressure off him early in the season with our coverages.

“The more that he was confident and understood our package a little better toward the back half of the season, the more we gave him, and he showed that he could handle it.”

Russell’s body language has taken a 180-degree turn. It was Russell who was spun around like a top by Navy receiver Shawn Lynch at the start of the second half of the season-opener, displaying just how far the true freshman had to go technique-wise.

But his response to adversity was one of pride and determination.

“Watching him come into this camp, it’s like he’s been playing (cornerback) three or four years,” Cooks said. “His understanding of our package is better, and he has the confidence and ability.

“When he first came over there, he wasn’t sure if he could be a top-level corner. I kept telling him, ‘Listen, you have all the tools. I’ve seen it before.’ I just kept saying that to him and he kept believing it, and now he’s taken it to heart. Now, you can’t tell him that he’s not the best one in America.”

And now, Notre Dame has a senior (with two years of eligibility) coming off the bench who prior to his Achilles injury last August was considered the best of the Irish cornerbacks. Wood is the third man in the rotation with true freshman Cole Luke pushing for time at cornerback and occupying the nickel back role heading into the ’13 season.

Cooks is impressed with Wood’s response to adversity.

“He’s been awesome,” Cooks said. “Lo’s been a team player. He’s been working to get back to his level. He’s been nothing but the best. He comes and works. By no means is he giving up his position. He has a desire to be a No. 1 corner for Notre Dame and he’s going to fight and battle every day.

“It’s going to be hard because of what KeiVarae and Bennett have proven. But that competition is going to make everybody better and build us depth, so now you feel really good about the top three corners, and then throw some of those young guys in there.”

Leading the way among the young guys - which includes classmates Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw -- is Luke along with juniors Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson fighting for a role.

“From a mindset and an understanding standpoint, and just being a savvy football player, I don’t know if I’ve had a player like Cole,” Cooks said. “That’s something that’s very uncommon for a freshman to come in and really grasp concepts and adjust so quickly to what we’re doing, especially in our system. But he came in with a great understanding.

“Obviously, his fundamentals aren’t where they will be. He has a knowledge of the game from always being around it, which is part of having an uncle that played in the NFL in Darren Woodson. So he has some knowledge that a lot of 18-year-olds don’t have. He’s put himself in position just by understanding the game and being savvy.”

It’s no wonder Cooks’ trepidation has been replaced by anticipation.

“Now they have 13 quality games under their belt, and we have Lo (Wood) back, who also has some experience and adds to that position,” Cooks said. “It should be very exciting for that position group this year.”


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