SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame will have a new look at cornerback this season.
Robert Blanton and Gary Gray graduated after starting every game last year and rarely coming off the field.
The loss of the corners, who combined for 137 tackles, four interceptions and 11 pass breakups, opens the door for juniors Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson, sophomores Josh Atkinson, Cam McDaniel and Jalen Brown, and freshmen KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate to seize playing time.
The open spots have created lively practices in the secondary as the team prepares for the season opener against Navy on Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland.
“It is definitely more intense,” Wood said. “We are trying to win that spot. One bad practice can set you back. We are always trying to impress the coaches and show them that we can be ready for the game.”
Wood, who is the most experienced cornerback, having played in 21 games the past two seasons, has caught the coaches’ attention – as has Jackson, who shined on special teams last season after moving to defense from receiver.
“If you ask me after the first five days (of camp) the guy that’s really impressed the staff the most it’s been Lo Wood,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s 192 pounds up from 178, breaking on the ball, tackling, communicating.
“We certainly feel like Bennett is accomplished at the position where we feel like he’s close to nailing down a position. I think it’s still very competitive. Josh Atkinson is in there, clearly. Cam McDaniel has done a really, really good job.”
Wood has been fueled by three things going into this season: The chance to take over a starting spot; proving he can contribute after not playing in the loss to Florida State in last year’s Champs Sports Bowl; and the memory of being beat by USC receiver Robert Woods.
Wood covered the All-American receiver at one point during Notre Dame’s 31-17 home loss to USC last year. Woods escaped from Wood and hauled in a pass from Matt Barkley to score the final touchdown.
Wood said that play has stuck with him in the offseason.
“I feel like, in general, all DBs have that one play where they feel like that one play is motivation to get to the top spot as a cornerback,” Wood said. “Since that happened to me as a sophomore, I feel like I’m going to hang on to that until I dominate every receiver out there.”
Jackson doesn’t have one play to motivate him yet. His motivation comes from proving he can succeed at cornerback.
And he is not concerned about being put in such a big role in the secondary.
“I don’t really see too many concerns,” Jackson said. “I know I have great safeties (returning starters Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta) behind me that are going help me out. If I keep working and improving each day, we are going to have a pretty good secondary.”