Notre Dame has become synonymous with tough defense, but it is usually the front seven who grab the headlines for the Fighting Irish. Stars like Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta propelled Notre Dame to the eleventh-ranked rushing defense in the nation last season.
While the front seven is considered to be one of the best in Division I, little fanfare was made over the Irish secondary in 2012.
This year returning starting cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell are poised to change that perception.
Russell had a strong performance last season but acknowledges his inexperience.
“Last year I didn't know what I was doing,” he told Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune. “Bennett was in his first year starting. Last year was a lot of firsts for us. This year we're going in to play.”
Despite his modesty, Russell played well in 2012. As discussed on The Program, he successfully defended USC powerhouse Marquise Lee, holding him to only 75 receiving yards in five receptions.
To date Russell has logged 37 solo tackles and 21 assists, giving him the fifth-most tackles of anyone on the team. He also caught two interceptions in key games against Michigan and USC.
“He knows the position very well,” head coach Brian Kelly told James. “His technique has improved immensely. He's stronger physically. A lot more confidence. All those things that come with being a returning starter."
Here is Russell intercepting a pass meant for Lee:
Jackson—now fully recovered from the shoulder injury that plagued him in 2012—is returning for his final season with the Irish. Last season he ranked third on the team with 65 total tackles, behind Te'o with 113 and Motta with 77. He also caught four picks in games with Purdue, Michigan and Stanford.
Here is his critical red-zone interception against Stanford last season:
Jackson shares Russell's confidence about the 2013 season.
“We don’t have the ‘first-game jitters’ anymore,” he told Al Lesar of the South Bend Tribune. “You go in, and you know what to expect. You know how you have to prepare yourself for every play.
“We have a great chance to build as a unit and become a complete package."
The wining combination of Russell and Jackson in the backfield will give Kelly and his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco more options schematically, such as running blitzes that would leave a more vulnerable secondary open to penetration.
“You could make the case when you're more experienced back there that you could play more on-body coverages and obviously tie down more,” Kelly told James. “Whether we do or not, we'll certainly have that in our repertoire if we needed it. When you're less experienced you're more hesitant to do it. I think now that opens the opportunity for us do that if necessary.”