SOUTH BEND | Reaching for the panic button would have been one way for Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks to respond last August when starting corner Lo Wood was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Cooks, though, responded in a different way.
“It may seem funny but, being around coach (Brian) Kelly, you get so ingrained to hearing, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens. It’s the next man in,'" Cooks said.
“It was very unfortunate. Even as a secondary coach knowing that you’re thin at that position, there’s really no other reaction than, ‘Hey, who’s next?’”
In this case it was true freshman KeiVarae Russell -- who was recruited to play offense and didn’t make the switch to defense until the start of fall camp.
Juxtapose Russell’s insertion at one corner with the fact that the other corner, Bennett Jackson, was a converted wide receiver and had never started a game at corner, and you’ve got the potential of Cooks buying Rolaids by the barrel.
We all know how it turned out.
“The group didn’t panic. The team didn’t panic. The defense didn’t panic,” Cooks said.
The defense actually flourished.
No team in the country allowed fewer points per game than Notre Dame. And while much of the publicity goes the way of the front seven, the secondary, which starts three players who were signed as offensive players, was pretty darn solid.
ND ranks 13th nationally in pass-efficiency defense. If you get down to the nitty-gritty, that secondary helped limit the two most potent passing offenses on the schedule — Oklahoma and USC — to 13 points each.
Oklahoma finished the regular season as the No. 5 passing offense, SC the 26th, though ND benefited from SC quarterback Matt Barkley being sidelined when the two clubs met in November.
So confidence, as you can imagine, is high among the Irish corners.
“I think that these guys have been battle-tested," Cooks said.
The final battle comes Jan. 7 when ND (12-0) plays Alabama (12-1) in the BCS Championship.
The Crimson Tide don’t throw for a lot of yards — they ranked 84th in passing yardage at 214 yards per game — but when they do throw, they do so very well. AJ McCarron is the nation’s top-rated quarterback in passing efficiency.
“McCarron, he’s a guy that’s not going to beat himself,” Cooks said. “You can tell that just as an offense, that these guys are very well coached. They don’t do silly things. They don’t turn the ball over a lot. I think he’s thrown the ball 250-plus times and he’s got three interceptions.
“He’s mobile enough to escape the pocket. He’s got an above-average arm. And he’s experienced. He’s been playing in the best conference in football for a long time. He’s not going to do anything to beat himself.”
While none of the ’Bama receivers statistically rank among the nation’s elite, the group, as a whole, according to Cooks, compares well to that of USC.
“I don’t know if there’s a group that’s better than (USC), but there’s probably some groups that are comparable to them, like the Alabama group,” Cooks said. “Even though they want to run the ball, those guys are just as capable of being deep threats and hurting you with the pass.”
Cooks is well aware that McCarron will hook up with his receivers. It’s what happens afterwards that can determine if a drive is sustained or stalled.
And on certain plays, such as when the Irish corners are in man-to-man coverage, he understands receptions are sometimes inevitable.
“They’re going to catch some balls on you, they’re gifted athletes as well. It’s OK,” Cooks said. “As long as it’s no yards after contact and it’s bang-bang, we’ll live to see another down.”
That approach has worked all season. And all season, Cooks has seen growth from his corners.
“You could see from week to week our guys starting to believe in what we’re teaching them and we’re telling them,” Cooks said. “They just took those baby steps and finally you just started seeing them piece it all together.
"And it was fun to watch that group go from kind of zero to 10 by the end of the season.”