Returning: to and from

Jackson picked four balls; defended eight in 2012

Notre Dame's starting cornerback duo Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell return after a productive season. They'll gain a valuable third member of the unit, and potential competitor for playing time, in Lo Wood.

What a difference a year makes.

12 months ago this week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced the move of running back Cam McDaniel to cornerback, an off-season necessity in the wake of five-star Tee Shepard's transfer from the University coupled with an alarming dearth of veterans (none) and bodies (four) at the position.

Now on the morning of Kelly's initial spring address for 2013, the Irish have nine cornerbacks on the roster including a trio that will arrive in August, McDaniel is back where he belongs in the offensive backfield, and another former running back prospect, Keivarae Russell is months removed from 13 starts and freshman All-America mention.

And the athletic, confident Russell might be the third best pure cover man on the squad.

Re-Stocked and Ready

Of Notre Dame's nine scholarship cornerbacks on the 2013 roster, just one -- Bennett Jackson -- exhausts his eligibility this season.

Position Coach: Kerry Cooks -- Enters his second season as the program's co-defensive coordinator and officially his third working with cornerbacks. In his first season (2010) at Notre Dame, Cooks technically worked with the team's outside linebackers, but that season's cornerbacks Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, and Darrin Walls credited him often for his tutelage

Spring Combatants: Seniors Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood (redshirt-junior), juniors Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown (redshirt-sophomore); sophomores KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate. Shumate could return to safety to compete for a two-deep or starting role. He served as the team's nickel defender in 2012.

Incoming Talent: Four-star prospect Cole Luke (Chandler, Ariz.); three-star prospects Rashad Kinlaw (Absecon, N.J.) and Devin Butler (Washington, D.C.).

Returning Starters: Jackson and Russell both started all 13 games last fall.

Reentering the fray this spring is senior Lo Wood, the hands-down most improved player from last spring to mid-August 2012 according to the staff. A ruptured Achilles waylaid Wood's chances for a starting role, Russell stepped into the fray, improved throughout the regular season, and now the pair join senior Bennett Jackson to form a trio capable of defending anyone on the Irish schedule.

(Though that's debatable if Alabama reappears as an opponent next January).

Three to Make Two?

How close to 100 percent is senior Lo Wood in his recovery from Achilles surgery last August? Sources close to the program indicate Wood is full-go heading into spring ball -- cutting, sprinting, covering routes, and ready to roll.

But the old adage "you can't lose your job to injury" is false, not to mention a ridiculous notion. The best players should play, and if Wood isn't 100 percent through August 2013, it'll tough for him to reclaim the field cornerback spot he won convincingly in August 2012.

After 12 games last fall it appeared Jackson and Russell were stone cold locks at the position heading into 2013. Alabama though riddled the Irish secondary, and both Russell and Jackson struggled mightily, both in coverage and as tacklers.

Each member of the trio has ample room for improvement -- Wood was a starter in name only last fall, he never had the chance to show his improvement on Saturdays. Jackson played his best ball in November -- his worst in January -- and will spend most of the spring recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. But it would be a major upset if he doesn't start next fall, he simply made more plays than the rest of the 2012 secondary to think otherwise.

Russell improved throughout the season (he played well at USC, and that's worth something considering the team's dominant receiving duo of Robert Woods and Marquise Lee), but defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted twice last fall that coverages were employed throughout the season to lend aid to the new cornerback pair.

For the Irish defensive backfield to take the next step, it needs its corners -- three of them -- to step up.

Behind the Curve?

Juniors Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown saw their first taste of scrimmage action last fall, both played better early (Michigan State) than as the season progressed.

Brown isn't especially slow in his development, he has three seasons remaining after sitting out 2011 and to be fair, neither Jackson nor Wood have played much entering their true junior seasons, either.

Atkinson ranks a step behind, if only in terms of his eligibility clock, because he played as a true freshman in '11. With just two seasons remaining at the program, Spring 2013 is crucial for his development.

That development is essential because Notre Dame landed a potential depth chart competitor in four-star freshman Cole Luke. Luke won't push for a starting role, but the No. 4 cornerback spot is there for the taking, especially if 6'0" 200-pound sophomore Elijah Shumate moves to safety, the position for which he was recruited.

If Shumate, the team's nickel defender in 2012, remains at cornerback, Luke, Atkinson and Brown will all be hard-pressed to win a two-deep role this fall.

Final Analysis

If Wood can avoid a setback this spring (and summer), Notre Dame will have a strong trio of cornerbacks for competition in August camp. If Shumate remains with the unit, the team's two-deep seems set -- he's too athletic and strong a tackler to be beaten out by either Atkinson or Brown, or the 172-pound Luke.

The guess here is Shumate eventually moves to safety and challenges for a starting role, and that Notre Dame enters the 2013 season with three corners it trusts, in search of a fourth.

Note: Previews of each unit in our spring series can be found at the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs

Searching for Six: Wide Receivers

Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends

The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback

Links Remain: Offensive Line

Power of the Program: Defensive Line

Safety in Numbers

Living on the Edge: Cats and Dogs (OLB)

Insider Training (ILBs)

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