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Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Big shoes to fill: Secondary

By Matt Fortuna

Our series wraps up today, the start of spring practice, with a unit that will face quite the gauntlet of high-powered passing attacks this coming season. Who will step up?

OUT: Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Gary Gray. Smith was everything Notre Dame could have hoped for during his senior season, notching 90 tackles (second-most on the team), three tackles for loss, 10 pass break-ups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery — all the while serving as the Irish's lone captain. Smith was instrumental in keeping the squad together through tough stretches like the 0-2 start and the aftermath of coach Brian Kelly's controversial comments about the difference between his recruits and former coach Charlie Weis'. Smith finished his career with 309 tackles, ninth in school history, and the safety may just hear his name called on Day 1 of the NFL draft. Blanton came up big during his senior season, most notably with a game-sealing pick against Michigan State in Notre Dame's first win of the season. Gray, the other starting corner, took plenty of heat for allowing several big plays late in the loss at Michigan, but his presence will also be missed as the Irish break in two new starters at cornerback.

IN: Austin Collinsworth, Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson. Collinsworth, a safety, has been all over the field since arriving to Notre Dame as a receiver prospect in 2010, and he has filled in nicely as both a kick returner and on the kick coverage team. Wood has the biggest highlight of the three, returning an interception 57 yards for a touchdown against Maryland. Jackson, like Collinsworth, has been moved as well, entering Notre Dame as a wide receiver prospect and appearing in all 26 games through two seasons, mostly as a special teams player. He has participated with Notre Dame's track team this semester, and his speed will be crucial to a re-building secondary that faces a tough slate of signal callers in 2012, such as Oklahoma's Landry Jones and USC's Matt Barkley. Like the receiver position with Deontay Greenberry, this unit, too, is hurting from a recruiting departure — Greenberry's cousin, early enrollee cornerback Tee Shepard — as the Irish are down to five scholarship cornerbacks, with running back Cam McDaniel now moving to the defensive backfield. Kelly said at his spring-opening press conference Tuesday that Wood and Jackson enter spring as the starters and that, at least at the moment, there are no plans for incoming athlete Davonte Neal to start out as a cornerback.