- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A year ago Bennett Jackson was transitioning from offense to defense to help what Notre Dame's coaches then thought what was a thin cornerback group. The staff likely had no idea just how much the switch would pay dividends this spring, when the Irish were down to four scholarship corners following the sudden departure of early-enrollee Tee Shepard.
Running back Cam McDaniel was brought over prior to this spring, upping the number of cornerbacks to five.
"We're certainly short, there's no question," head coach Brian Kelly said at the start of the spring season. "There's no hiding the fact that we have a numbers issue there. But we'll be smart in how we manage our reps. We'll be smart in how we put those guys in positions. But clearly you know our philosophy and style of defense; we think that we can be a championship team with the five guys that we have there."
Multi-year starters Robert Blanton and Gary Gray are gone, and suddenly the leader of the pack is Jackson, who played mostly on special teams during his freshman year of 2010, when he was also a wide receiver.
No conversations during his recruitment centered on a possible re-location to the secondary, Jackson said, as the move last spring came as a bit of a surprise.
"I'd say at first I was a little moved by it," Jackson said. "I was a little, I wouldn't say aggravated but a little disappointed. But as I went down the road I actually enjoyed cornerback a lot more than receiver, so I thought it was a great move by the coaches."
"I always enjoyed the physical part more," he later added. "I always like hitting. Special teams my freshman year, I was always hitting. I didn't really play receiver too much so I got a feel for the physical part of the game more. And trying a new position, I fit in well. So I was doing good at it, I was having a chance to compete and I just really started to enjoy it."
Of the switch, Jackson said he would likes to hit rather than be hit. Given Notre Dame's current cornerback situation, he may just like the pressure of being one of the best the Irish have.
"Bennett is as talented a cornerback as I've ever coached," cornerbacks coach and co-defensive coordinator Kerry Cooks said. "From the speed, he's long, he's athletic, he can flip his hips. The part that he's missing is just the experience part, which he got a little bit of that toward the back half of last season. So he's still got to grow. The first few days have been awesome -- he's out there, he's talking, he's vocal. He's doing all the right things, so I like where he's at right now."
Jackson and Lo Wood are the No. 1 corners this spring, with Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown behind them. Wood's 57-yard interception return for a touchdown last season against Maryland is the highlight among the group, which stands little more than five months from a slate featuring Heisman-caliber passers like USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones.
The corners are welcoming the negative perception as a challenge.
"We're making sure we're just focused on getting better as a unit in the secondary because we all know that, hey, the pressure's on us," Atkinson said. "We all just wanna be great and we're all just committing ourselves to getting better each and every day."
Kelly said there are no current plans for incoming athlete Davonte Neal to play cornerback upon arrival, as he will likely be a receiver or return man.
Cooks, meanwhile, is looking at the current situation as a blessing in disguise. If nothing else, he said, there are more opportunities for each player to take advantage of.
"To me, I don't even look at it like that," Cooks said. "I got the guys that I got. If I had eight I'd be happy, if I had four, if I had three — I'm gonna coach the guys that I got and the guys that wanna be here. And to me, having five scholarship corners allows a lot of guys to get more reps, which means we're building depth at the same time as trying to find out who our two-deep is."