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Football: Young defensive backs are still ‘in progress’

Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Say goodbye to former Irish defensive backs Harrison Smith, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. Say hello to Notre Dame juniors Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth.

Just a year after the Irish secondary started four seniors, Notre Dame will trot out a youthful defensive backfield low on experience, but high on potential.

“[The secondary] is a work in progress,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “We have a couple of stalwarts at safety who played a lot of reps a year ago. Those young guys behind them are a work in progress. We’ve got a bunch more that are going to be added to that group in August.”

Senior safeties Jamoris Slaughter – who will also drop down and play outside linebacker – and Zeke Motta will anchor the unit Diaco described as a year-long project.

“The defensive backfield is going to require a massive amount of work and maybe even some game day management,” Diaco said.

Last year, Jackson and Wood – the two cornerbacks currently at the top of the depth chart – each played in at least 10 games and combined for 16 tackles. Gray and Blanton, meanwhile, recorded 96 total tackles.

“I feel like I have big shoes to fill with Gary and Blanton gone,” Jackson said. “I’m just trying to transition more to being a leader for my teammates.”

Wood saw significant playing time in Notre Dame’s 31-17 loss to USC on Oct. 22, when he matched up with Trojans star receiver Robert Woods for much of the game. Woods finished with 12 catches for 119 yards. Wood, however, recorded Notre Dame’s only interception return for a touchdown in the 45-21 blowout win over Maryland on Nov. 12.

Jackson, a former receiver, served primarily as a kick returner on special teams last year, returning three kicks for a total of 32 yards. Collinsworth also earned playing time on kick returns, averaging over 20 yards per return.

Diaco said Collinsworth’s energetic style is contagious.

“He’s a werewolf,” Diaco said. “I love that guy. That guy is hard not to like. He is all energy, he is a high-collision player, he is fast when he steps on the gas pedal. If your energy bucket is a little empty, hang around Austin a little bit and it will be filled back up in a hurry.”

Because of the inexperience and lack of depth at cornerback, Diaco said the Irish will not have a set depth chart by the end of spring practice.

“I don’t think that is going to happen,” Diaco said. “At the end of the day, we’re not really going to know what they’re going to do until they get in the game. We can try as hard as we want to simulate real live action, but until there is real live action, it’s not the same.

“There is going to be guys rolling in and out at corner, they all need to play. Whether we like it or not, they all need to play.”

Big recruiting coup

Fresh off a big recruiting weekend that saw some of the premier high school juniors on campus, Notre Dame claimed five new commitments to its recruiting class for 2013.

Since March 24, offensive linemen Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey, quarterback Malik Zaire, athlete Rashad Kinlaw and wide receiver Corey Robinson all committed to the Irish. Every player is at least a three-star recruit, according to Rivals.

McGovern, Bivin and McGlinchey all are 6-foot-7 or taller and each weigh at least 280 pounds, giving the Irish size and depth on the offensive line.

Zaire, a 6-foot-1 quarterback from Kettering, Ohio, is a mobile quarterback and will join the crowded stable of gunslingers already enrolled at Notre Dame, which includes dual-threat options in junior Andrew Hendrix and sophomore Everett Golson.

Robinson, the 6-foot-4 son of basketball legend David Robinson, committed late Tuesday night. He was also being courted by Wake Forest and North Carolina.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]