Before a season that ended at the BCS National Championship Game, Notre Dame had to overcome what looked like the first of two crippling injuries in the defensive backfield.
Starting cornerback Lo Wood went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon during fall camp, preceding the same injury to safety Jamoris Slaughter three games into the season. Wood spent two years climbing up the depth chart and would have started opposite Bennett Jackson.
Instead, Wood missed the entire season, a situation that helped make KeiVarae Russell the first freshman cornerback to start a season opener in the history of the program.
“When you’re a starter and you get out for the season after you’ve worked two years to get to that point you’re down and you’re sad,” Wood said. “You kinda like break down. But after a while you just have to suck it up.”
Wood underwent surgery, began the rehabilitation process and watched from the sidelines as Russell played well enough to mask the lack of depth at cornerback while starting all 13 games.
Now with rehab in the books, Wood is back at work during spring drills. He joins Russell, Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson at the position while Jackson sits out following shoulder surgery.
“I didn’t think he would be ready and even be ready to go through spring,” said cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks. “But through the offseason he came back, we were doing drills and he was running around and doing all the agility stuff and he looked great. The first two days of practice he looks like he didn’t even have an injury.
“So, very excited about where he’s at. Now for him it’s just about he hasn’t played in a year, so getting a feel for the game again and going against wide receivers and pushing against other people.”
Progress over the next few weeks could earn Wood serious minutes next season.
Actual depth at the position has head coach Brian Kelly talking about more nickel and dime packages rather than sticking with base defenses. Wood, who made six tackles and grabbed one interception during his sophomore season, could be a beneficiary.
Wood has tried to find a way to turn his missed season into a positive.
“You see how he transforms over time,” Jackson said. “He’s worked his butt off the entire way, his upper body and it’s just paid off with his jams. There’s still a little rust he needs to knock off, which is evident in everybody’s game right now, but he looks tremendous. He’s quick. He hasn’t really lost a step. He’s in there competing. It’s amazing to me.”
How quickly Wood returned to the field doesn’t come as a surprise to only teammates.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco took close inspection of the Apopka, Fla., native during the first couple spring practices. If early returns stand the test of time he might have another reliable option come fall.
That’s the expectation, at least.
“He’s not where he needs to be, where he will be,” Diaco said. “Obviously, he just started. But it’s exciting to watch a guy that had such a severe injury not be hesitant at all. It’s pretty neat. It’s pretty neat. I’m not sure I’d be planting with the aggressiveness and the intensity that he’s playing with and the lack of hesitation as much as he is. It’s really a credit to his toughness.”