Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback

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There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told Scout.com. “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.