SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame receiver TJ Jones knew things were changing in his team’s secondary when the same tricks were no longer working against the Irish’s cornerbacks.
Jones said when the season began, he could run a route the same way every time against first-year starters KeiVarae Russell and Bennett Jackson and have a good chance of hauling in a reception.
But as those two gained experience, Jones had to be more creative.
“If you run it the same way now, they are on your hip,” Jones said. “They are all over you. You’ll be on the ground, and you don’t know what happened; before, it would be a contested catch.”
Being able to do more than just contest receptions was one of the improvements an untested Irish secondary needed to make to help No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) reach the BCS championship game against No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Injuries changed Notre Dame’s secondary this season as the Irish lost an experienced cornerback and veteran safety.
Cornerback Lo Wood was lost before the season to an Achilles injury, forcing Russell into the starting lineup. Fifth-year senior safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his left Achilles tendon during a 20-3 win at Michigan State on Sept. 15, forcing sophomore Matthias Farley into a starting role.
Three weeks into the season, Notre Dame was left with only safety Zeke Motta as a defensive back with extended experience as a starter and as the only Irish defensive back recruited to play at his position. Farley and Jackson were both recruited to play receiver, and Russell was recruited as a running back.
The injuries and new starters forced Motta into a teaching role and helped the senior develop
“I think that when you are able to teach and explain things, it helps you to understand a lot better too,” Motta said. “It slows things down a lot. It definitely helped being in a more verbal position. I needed to accept that role and do what I needed to do to make sure that everybody is going to be on the same page.”
And even though the secondary kept getting younger and less experienced, cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks said the team never panicked.
“If you are around (Irish coach Brian Kelly), it kind of gets ingrained in you that it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s the next man up,” Cooks said. “(Injuries) are things that you can’t control. It is unfortunate, but the next guy has got to come in and play a role.”
The defensive backs didn’t always play their roles perfectly, but as the season progressed, each one got better and the group produced three of Notre Dame’s top five tacklers.
Motta and Jackson are tied for second on the team with 61 tackles; Russell was fifth with 50. Farley has 43 tackles, ninth highest on the team.
Jackson, Russell and Farley have also accounted for seven of the Irish’s 16 interceptions with Jackson leading with four. Russell has two, and Farley has one.
“I think it all goes back to great coaching and great players, especially Jamoris who got hurt but had so much knowledge to stick by you and help develop you,” Farley said of the defensive backs being able to improve throughout the season. “He was in all of our corners – KeiVarae, myself and Bennett. Just to have that support system that reaches beyond the stripes of the football field really helps.”
Notre Dame will need all the help its secondary can provide to contain Alabama’s passing game.
Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron was the most efficient passer this season with a 173.1 rating. He threw for 2,669 yards with 26 touchdowns and was only intercepted three times on 286 pass attempts.
Amari Cooper led Alabama’s receivers with 53 catches for 895 yards with nine touchdowns, and Kevin Norwood was second with 26 receptions for 395 yards with four touchdowns.
Cooks said a secondary that limited opponents to 194.4 passing yards per game and seven passing touchdowns this season is ready for its final challenge.
“These guys have been battle tested,” Cooks said. “I think their confidence is high, as well as it should be. We’ve faced some pretty good competition. We haven’t been great against all of them, but I think that we’ve held our own.”