SOUTH BEND – All of the media and fan attention early in the Notre Dame football training camp has been focused laser-like on the quarterback position and with good reason. Whichever player wins that job will have perhaps more of an impact on the direction of this season than any other on the roster.
However, there is another group of players that can make the quarterback’s job significantly easier and not an inordinate amount of talk is revolving around that group, the defense.
“We’ve got over 2,000 live snaps on the defensive side of the ball on returning players,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s a lot of snaps.”
To better evaluate his quarterbacks through this training camp, Kelly has altered the practice schedule to include more 11-on-11 work. However, the focus on the quarterbacks creates a positive result on the other side of the ball, in that, it allows a group of terribly inexperienced defensive backs to get a lot of repetitions in practice.
So all the while quarterbacks Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix are improving, hopefully cornerbacks Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson, among others, are as well.
“The 11-on-11 suits the offense a lot more, due to our lack of experience in some key positions versus the defense,” Kelly explained. “But our defense is going to get more in-depth work.”
With the departures of safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Robert Blanton to the Minnesota Vikings, as well as the graduation of Gary Gray, Kelly comprehends the work that needs done over the next four weeks in the Irish secondary.
“Clearly, we are going to have new cornerbacks,” Kelly said. “So getting them (work) as part of the unit so that there is one heartbeat on that side of the ball is very, very important.”
The coach noted that he didn’t believe that his team was that far away from being an excellent group a season ago. But mistakes on just a handful of plays – not all by the secondary - resulted in a special season becoming an ordinary one.
“There were probably five or six plays, if you make a play here, there’s a different outcome to the game,” Kelly said. “So our focus is eliminating those five or six plays as a unit. I think everything you see out of our defense is how we get all 11 guys, not just hey we’ve got to spend time on the cornerback positions.”
Jackson and Wood are juniors that played in 13 and 10 games a year ago, respectively. However, returning players Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown, and Cam McDaniel will get evaluated thoroughly over the next month as well. Kelly believes that competition, and the amount of work against a complete offensive unit, not just in drills, will prove beneficial to all of the players competing for jobs.
“On one side of the ball, it helps our offense,” Kelly said. “On the other side, it is really helping our defense build the depth.”