While visions of jumbotrons dance in my head (or are they premonitions? Perhaps nightmares?) time marches forward quickly closing in on opening game for the Irish. There’s no stopping time. There’s no stopping Sark at a fundraiser with an open bar and an open mic. THERE’S NO STOPPING THIS EDITION OF KNOW THYSELF, KNOW THY ENEMY. Today’s topic:
VIDEO BOARDS/IN-GAME ENTERTAINMENT
Okay, no, it’s not. I’m sorry. I got caught up in the moment. Today’s topic, for real, is defensive backs. As always, let’s start with the good guys:
The Irish – KeiVarae Russell, Senior, 5’11”, 196 lbs.
I refuse to re-hash last summer’s missteps. The past is the past. Russell has paid his penance, earned his way back, and quickly re-installed himself as the vocal heartbeat of the defensive unit. I love looking back at Russell’s time at ND. He’s been a personal favorite nearly from the outset. Go check out basically any recruiting site and find KeiVarae’s profile: Like all sites, there was disagreement about how “good” a prospect he was. One thing more consistent: No one envisioned him as a cornerback.
Russell embraced the switch to secondary almost immediately. To step in as a true freshman, move positions, start every game for a team that went to the national title game, and receive Freshman All-American honors from multiple outlets speaks to KeiVarae’s dedication.
His 2013 was even better as Russell firmly established himself as a shutdown cornerback. Notre Dame’s had a rich recent history of smack talking corners from Clifford Jefferson to Preston Jackson, to Bennett Jackson. The unique difference is in how Russell backs up his talk. He’s a physical, aggressive corner capable of locking down an opponent’s best receiver.
Heading into 2014, Russell made several pre-season watch lists including the Bednarik and Nagurski trophy lists. Despite a year away from playing, Russell finds himself on those same watch lists again this year. Nothing should be taken away from the job Cole Luke and Cody Riggs did in Russell’s absence last season. There’s also no reason to deny that Notre Dame’s pass rush must improve for the team to reach their loftiest goals, but let me suggest something: The Notre Dame secondary is the most important component to the team this season. I don’t say this just to be contrarian. I agree that a lot hinges on the defensive line improving. A lot hinges on Zaire’s development as well. However, a Brian Kelly coached Notre Dame team has demonstrated that just average quarterback play can get the team pretty dang far. If the pass rush approaches average, that’ll be a drastic improvement from last year. By contrast, the secondary, with Russell back, Luke on the other side, and some talented if inconsistent pieces in safety has an opportunity to be elite. Given that the most talented team Notre Dame will face this year comes in the form of USC, who passed for 7,000 TD’s last year versus the Irish, the secondary’s chance to be elite is the difference maker this year. It’s Russell’s presence that gives them this shot.
The Opponent – Quin Blanding, Virginia, Sophomore, 6’2”, 205 lbs.
Oh sure, Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander has proclaimed himself the best cornerback in America and he is really, really good. USC’s also got a guy who will receive plenty of attention in Adoree’ Jackson because he’s going to play both ways and has a lot of athletic skill, but neither of these guys is Virginia Free Safety Quin Blanding. All those Freshman All-American accolades I just mentioned for Russell? Yeah, Blanding’s got those too. Blanding had 123 total tackles (60 solo) as a true freshman last year. He added on 3 interceptions, a sack, played and started every game, and well….he’s really freaking good. This wasn’t a fluke or because Virginia was bad. Blanding was 247 Sports #6 overall player on their composite board for the 2014 class (one spot ahead of Adoree’ Jackson) and the top safety/defensive back in the country. Consider this – Notre Dame (and its fans) were pretty hyped up when Max Redfield committed in 2013. Redfield was the #3 safety in his class with a composite score of 0.9852. #1 that year was now USC hybrid linebacker-secondary-mercenary Su’a Cravens. His composite score of 0.9960 was also lower than Blanding’s. I only lead you through all of this to say: he’s a man bear pig who’s been given license to freely terrify anyone who enters Virginia’s secondary. Need more proof? Here’s like 6 minutes of Blanding doing amazing things as a freshman (set to really terrible music). [iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/hL1ct1bEuaE”]