Russell, Collinsworth stand out in spring practice
Mike Monaco | Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Notre Dame only lost one starter from last year’s secondary, but defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks doesn’t look at his group and see polish and experience all over.
“It’s a very young group, very raw group,” Cooks said Wednesday after Notre Dame’s 10th spring practice.
What’s missing, at least for Cooks, in terms of age and refinement, is made up for in talent, according to the fifth-year Irish coach. The focus in the spring is on individual improvement, however basic the learning might be.“I think that it’s a talented group, but right now these guys are learning everything from proper stance to where their eyes should be, to how to take the first step, and then they’ve got to process what the offense is doing and then react based on what the scheme is,” Cooks said. “So they’re starting from square one. But you’ve seen improvement from day one to … now.”
Cooks said junior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth have shined the brightest during spring practice. Russell has started all 26 games at cornerback in his career, and Collinsworth made 11 starts in 2013 after missing the entire 2012 season because of shoulder and back surgery.
“I love KeiVarae Russell. I’m a little spoiled with him. And Austin Collinsworth,” Cooks said. “Those two guys right now — and they’ve got experience, they’ve been in our system for a while, they’ve been around the program — they’re at a different level. The other guys have got to keep coming.”
In practices open to the media, sophomore safety Max Redfield has seen the majority of reps as the first-team safety playing alongside Collinsworth. Redfield was the No. 23 player in his high-school class, according to ESPN.com. The four-star recruit didn’t crack Notre Dame’s starting lineup until the Pinstripe Bowl, when the 6-foot-1, 194-pounder tallied two of his 12 tackles.
“Max Redfield is going to be a heck of a player, he’s just got a lot to learn. Very talented kid,” Cooks said.
Cooks said sophomore cornerback Cole Luke is similar to Redfield in that sense. Luke has been slotted opposite Russell at the other cornerback position, the one former captain Bennett Jackson manned for the past two seasons. Luke appeared in all 13 games last season as a freshman and notched 15 tackles. Cooks said Luke is one of the smoothest athletes he’s ever been around.
“He’s just got to piece it all together,” Cooks said.
Senior Matthias Farley boasts 19 career starts at safety but has switched to cornerback this spring. Cooks said Farley gives the Irish depth at several positions.
“Matthias is a smart kid, so he can pretty much do anything that we ask,” Cooks said. “He’s played safety. He’s played nickel. Obviously he’s playing a little corner for us right now. So we just plan on using him in a lot of different areas, not one specific, but we know that he’s got value at safety, he’s got value at nickel. He’s probably been the best nickel that we’ve had in the last year or two right now just through  practices, through spring.”
And through 10 practices, Notre Dame’s defense seems more aggressive than that of years past, a shift new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said last week starts on the outside with the cornerbacks. Cooks said while the old system under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was “awesome” and successful, the new system brings a mindset of constant attack.
“The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes,” Cooks said. “We want to be on attack mode. And the whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense. So everything that we do … we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical, and that whole mindset of challenge every route, challenge every route…”
“So just being more aggressive when the ball is in the air, being more aggressive when you’re engaging a blocker, being more aggressive flying through the ball.”
Cooks said they see sophomore safety James Onwualu, who played receiver last season, providing value at safety as well as in some of the sub packages in the nickel, dime and at linebacker.
Sophomore cornerback Devin Butler, who had offseason shoulder surgery, has yet to participate in contact drills, but Cooks said he’s been working with Butler for 10 to 15 minutes after practice doing all the individual work not including contact.
“He’s staying into it mentally. He’s locked into our meetings. He’s asking a lot of questions,” Cooks said. “So he’s doing everything you can ask a kid who’s injured to do.”
Cooks said junior safety Elijah Shumate is still showing the athleticism, physicality and toughness he’s always displayed and said he’s making “small steps,” but Cooks said Shumate has been in the system long enough to where he needs to make “a big jump.”