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Cornerback, 2012-13, and Beyond...
At his National Signing Day press conference in 2012, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered the following of January enrollee Tee Shepard, the lone cornerback-specific signee in his 17-player class:
"We believe he is the best cornerback in the country…"
And thus he was the only player signed, at least after fellow five-star Ronald Darby's de-commitment in early January.
Shepard however transferred prior to spring practice, leaving the Irish with no signed players specific to the position, and just one, four-star Davonte Neal, who seemed a potential fit. Neal was targeted for the slot by Notre Dame but FOX Sports NEXT ranked him as the nation's fifth best CB prospect.
Instead, running back/slot receiver signee Keivarae Russell never saw the offensive side of scrimmage, eventually worked his way into a starting position due to injury and opportunity, and 12 games later, was named a first-team Freshman All-America at corner .
Shepard's gone; Neal never moved; Russell took advantage of the position's scarcity of talent, and it became imperative that Notre Dame sign at least three players to compete at cornerback in the 2013 cycle.
2013 Grade -- B
Three athletes were of absolute necessity and ultimately three joined the fray, though one, Absecon, N.J. native Rashad Kinlaw, will make the transition from high school quarterback to collegiate corner.
Three-star prospect Devin Butler is a two-way star from Gonzaga Prep (Washington, D.C.) already on every Irish fan's "underrated" list -- though that tends to be the case with any three-star that can run. Butler should be ahead of Kinlaw in terms of collegiate learning curve at the position but both could play safety or offense -- both are needed at cornerback for 2013.
Not moving positions anytime soon is natural cover man Cole Luke. The 6'1" four-star is the most natural and fluid cornerback the program has signed since Darrin Walls in 2006.
The trio received a solid B for its potential -- I couldn't go higher with Kinlaw a complete projection to the position.
Quote to Note: "We love his size, his length, his athleticism. We think it's an untapped resource for us in that we're only going to get him better and better physically, and he has the speed, he has the ability to play the ball. We think he's going to fit well at the cornerback position for us. He was somebody that we identified early in this process and felt like he would be a great addition to this class. We love the fact that he's really embraced coming to Notre Dame. You know, the high school has not had a lot of students come in this area of the country, and to get him to come to Notre Dame says a lot about him."
-- Kelly on converted quarterback-turned-cornerback prospect, Rashad Kinlaw
2013 Grade Coupled with 2012 -- B-
This could have been as low as a C-, but I'll deal with real-world machinations, and the fact is, Russell is a 2012 recruit that can flat-out play. There's a reason Kelly recruits players to a Profile more so than a specific position, and Russell is a shining example of a Skill athlete that can help a football team at multiple positions.
In terms of actual position recruitment, Shepard appeared to be a gem, but at some point a contingency should have been made by the staff for a player it knew to be an academic risk, one entering school as an early enrollee, to boot.
If not for the incredible evolution of running back KeiVarae Russell at the position, the 2012 recruiting class would have been a total failure in terms of cornerback commits -- alarming in that it was a major position of need.
Fans looking at Kinlaw's forthcoming conversion will see the half-full glass (Russell) but at this point, there's a half-empty option, too (2009 converted quarterback E.J. Banks).
Because Russell was part of the 2012 group, the ultimate grade is a B-. Sometimes things work out unexpectedly well.
Necessary additions for 2014 as a result: The program has stabilized at cornerback since the dark days of training camp 2012, with Russell, the trio of incoming freshmen, two 2011 pledges Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson, and a pair of seniors in Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood -- the latter returning from serious injury.
Only Jackson exhausts eligibility at season's end; Wood and Atkinson are eligible through 2014; Brown and Russell through 2015, and the freshman threesome to be determined.
At least one more true cornerback should be included in the 2014 class. That would give Kelly & Co. five in the last three cycles (including Russell). A second wouldn't hurt, especially if the additional athlete could compete at multiple positions (such as Kinlaw or Butler).
Look for Notre Dame to target one prime target while adding another RB/S/CB prospect to the final mix.
Were needs filled at CB over the last two seasons?
Russell's successful move from running back, combined with the additions of Luke, Kinlaw, and Butler give the Irish four young players at the position in a two-season cycle. Ideal -- and also fortunate, as Russell was in no way expected to switch sides of scrimmage, a fact Kelly noted on Signing Day 2013.
The bottom line: four athletes have joined the program in the last 13 months -- that's a fine start toward rebuilding and maintaining depth at crucial modern-day position.