On nearly every snap in every football game, one of 22 players on the field makes a mistake. Whether mental or physical, each mistake contributes to yardage gained and lost, and ultimately touchdowns scored.
Fans rarely notice when a linebacker chooses the wrong gap, a running back hits the wrong hole, or a receiver runs his route at the wrong depth.
But when a cornerback makes a mistake, even a false step? Well as a former Irish assistant was fond of saying, it's time to "strike up the band" and everyone in the stadium and at home on their sofas thinks they know who to blame for a six-spot on the scoreboard.
Junior cornerback Lo Wood has lived that reality for most of his football career.
"I've been playing it for awhile so I'm used to it," said Wood of the scrutiny that comes with his position. "Everyone knows playing cornerback is one of the hardest spots on the field. But now I'm just gaining confidence, and having that in me, I'm trying to make it the easiest spot on the field."
He lived through it last year publicly when USC's Robert Woods beat him for a stop-and-go touchdown on 3rd and 5. It was Woods' 12th catch of the day, but no matter, "Woods on Wood" ranks as the Irish fan base's lasting memory of the untested cover man. Such is life on the lonely island that is cornerback.
"It took me down a little bit," said Wood of the score that pushed USC's late lead to 31-17. "But now I use it as my motivation, that one play was big to make me better."
Three weeks later, Wood's interception touchdown vs. Maryland at FedEx Field was the first defensive score by the Irish through 10 games (Zeke Motta would return a fumble in the Champs Sports Bowl), and it was a play that helped further his resolve going forward.
"It was a big boost for rest of season," said Wood of his 57-yard sprint and score. "It was a big thrill in that (NFL) stadium; it helped me out a lot the rest of the way."
Praised for his work ethic in spring practices as a 2010 early enrollee, Wood's 2011 spring was solid if not spectacular. Position coach Kerry Cooks though noted his junior corner was still at "Level 1" of his development. But summer workouts and the first five practices of August camp have apparently changed the viewpoint of the program's most important voice.
"If you ask me after the first five days, the guy that’s really impressed the staff the most it’s been Lo Wood," said head coach Brian Kelly following Wednesday's practice. "He’s 192 pounds up from 178 (as a freshman). Breaking on the ball, tackling, communicating. I’m not anointing him that guy, but of the three that I’ve just mentioned (including fellow cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and Cam McDaniel), I’ve really noticed Lo and Cam."
Jackson will likely start on the boundary and Wood has staked claim to the field. A conversation with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco last spring revealed the staff isn't high on flip-flopping their corners if the tact can be avoided. That practice has apparently helped Wood settle in at the field spot -- one occupied by Robert Blanton in 2011 and Darrin Walls in 2010.
"Staying at the field (side) helps because you learn (the scheme) easier from one side instead of worrying about switching. Staying there was a big plus."
Jackson and Wood appear set to become Notre Dame's first new pair of starting cornerbacks at the program since 1998. That season, future NFL'er Deveron Harper and veteran backup Ty Goode combined to start 17 games (future NFL'er Brock Williams fought his way in for seven starts as well) for an Irish team that finished 9-3, and was one late-season, avoidable quarterback injury away from likely BCS riches.
Wood, a long-time student of the position, was open about what he had to work on, this in a conversation with Irisheyes.com from his freshman season:
“My strength is probably my footwork and playing man-off,” Wood noted before adding, “I would say my weakness is playing the ball. I have to still improve on that.”
Reminded of that this week, Wood offered progress on both fronts.
"I'm gaining confidence and that helps with (the break on the ball)," he explained. "Before practice, just having the mindset that I have to play the ball better if I want the defense to improve. I believe in myself and have gained confidence -- that's the biggest thing."
Notre Dame fans won't see a depth chart until Monday night or Tuesday morning prior to the team's season opener vs. Navy. No matter who sits atop the corner spots, they'll have their names announced with the Irish starting lineup for the first time.
"Since last year to know I made big improvements, being physical and being more mentally tough," Wood said. "Its the competition that pushes me harder whether I'm #1 (on the depth chart) or not."
At present, it's a spot Wood has earned. Staying there permanently means not giving too many opponents a reason to strike up the band this fall.