As Notre Dame prepares for the second week of the college football season, and the Fighting Irish home opener against Purdue, the status of the defensive secondary remains one of Coach Brian Kelly's primary concerns. Irish fans, and alumni like me, know the cornerbacks, in particular, will be tested far more than they were against the option attack of Navy.
Graduation, injuries and transfers took an offseason toll on the Notre Dame defense, and nowhere is that more evident than at the cornerback position. Junior Lo Wood was lost for the season with an Achilles injury, and against Navy, KeiVarae Russell became the first true freshman to ever start at corner for Notre Dame in a season opener. Bennett Jackson started at the other cornerback spot.
"I thought assignment-wise against the option, I was very pleased with our discipline on the back end," Kelly said of his defensive backs following the win over Navy. "Certainly they completed some balls that can stress you when you're playing that kind of offense. It's like I told our team, 'This is a process. Every week we're going to get challenged in different areas.' This week it's going to be more of a balance between the run and pass, and we'll learn a lot more about our football team after week two."
Notre Dame came out of the Navy win ranked 91st in the NCAA in pass-efficiency defense, despite facing the run-oriented Midshipmen. Purdue has a long tradition of prolific passing offenses and outstanding quarterbacks, and the Irish are going to be tested by other pass-happy teams later in the season as well.
"We know that we've got four corners, outside of Bennett, that can compete, and we know all of them can play that position,'' Kelly has said. ''Now they're on stage. There's one thing that scares me the most and that's when you have slow corners. We don't have any slow corners. All those kids can run. Now it's about honing their skills. They can certainly athletically do the job. Now it's a matter of how quickly they can pick up the technique and discipline, which is so important in playing that position.''
The Boilermakers come into the game ranked 7th in NCAA passing offense, having thrown for 372 yards in a season-opening win against Eastern Kentucky. But coach Danny Hope will get suspended quarterback Caleb TerBush back against the Irish, and they will surely look to test the inexperienced Notre Dame secondary.
Kelly, at least, remains upbeat about his young corners.
"I thought they did some great things," Kelly said. "I'm really excited about their ability to compete. That learning experience is so big for us as we move to our next challenge, which is playing Purdue."
Notre Dame fans will cross our fingers and hope that the luck of the Irish holds out while the secondary undergoes its on the job training.
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Rick Blaine, an award-winning broadcaster and columnist, holds two degrees from Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @RickBlaineCT.