Feb 19, 2013, 1:26 PM EDT
After 40 days of prep and a January match-up, Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier finally designed a game plan that beat a young Notre Dame secondary that many thought would have plenty of troubling Saturdays. Yet even as injuries forced inexperience and youth into the lineup, Kerry Cooks and Bobby Elliott worked miracles with a group that in season’s past would have been the Achilles heel of the team.
Losing key building blocks like Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth before the season and then starter Jamoris Slaughter early in the year was a recipe for disaster, yet the unit played well all season, with only AJ McCarron slicing and dicing the group with precision.
Heading into 2013, the Irish are positioned to have one of their strongest secondaries of the Kelly era. While they’ll need to replace Zeke Motta and Slaughter, who was denied an appeal for a sixth season last week, they’ll have plenty of experience returning, with 2012 acting as a jump start in development for several young players.
Let’s take a look at the last few recruiting classes and see just how much work this coaching staff did to replenish the roster.
E.J. Banks — Spent 2009 season redshirting before leaving program in 2010. Now at Pitt.
Chris Badger — Enrolled early only to go on Mormon Mission. Redshirted during 2012 season.
Spencer Boyd — Early enrollee who left campus before ever suiting up. Now at USF.
Austin Collinsworth — One of Brian Kelly’s first scholarship offers. Will compete for starting job.
Lo Wood — Inside track to starting cornerback job last year until Achilles tear.
Bennett Jackson — Started career as WR. Will sit out spring drills, but locked in as starting CB.
Matthias Farley — Spent ’11 season as a redshirt WR. Started at safety after Jamoris Slaughter went out.
Josh Atkinson — Special teams contributor in first two seasons. Speedster limited athletically.
Jalen Brown — Great size for corner. Saw time as reserve DB after redshirting in 2011.
Eilar Hardy — Knee injury cut short freshman season. Reserve safety saw limited minutes in ’12.
Nicky Baratti — Hard-hitting safety logged some key minutes during freshman season.
CJ Prosise — Jumbo safety worked as a weak-side linebacker, but stayed off the field.
KeiVarae Russell — Switched to cornerback in fall camp. Won starting CB job as true freshman.
Tee Shepard — Highly touted early enrollee never stepped for on playing field.
Elijah Shumate — Played key minutes as freshman nickel back. Played CB after starting as a safety.
John Turner — Big-bodied safety redshirted his freshman season.
Devin Butler — Projects to start career as a big-bodied cornerback prospect.
Cole Luke — Needs to gain weight, but one of the elite cover corners in the recruiting class.
Rashad Kinlaw — Injuries shortened junior and senior seasons. Pure athlete, projected as DB.
Max Redfield — Five-star prospect immediately enters race for time at safety.
Way too early spring projection
It’s worth keeping an eye on the guys returning from injury. Both Wood and Collinsworth would have played major minutes last season. The official departure of Slaughter makes the safety spot really an open competition. A handful of guys should feel like they have a legitimate chance to win jobs. For every logical candidate like Farley, Collinsworth and Baratti, there are a handful of other guys worth watching, like Shumate and Hardy.
At cornerback, the Irish welcome back starters, but should see competition behind them be tight. Wood will expect to fight his way back into the rotation while Atkinson and Brown will take a step forward after another season of development. It’s worth watching what happens with Shumate, who has the athleticism to play either position.
After really thin numbers in previous years, the secondary’s depth chart is finally getting healthy.