NOTRE DAME — As TJ Jones put it, “Iron sharpens iron.”
While the Notre Dame receiver attempts to prepare the youth movement filling the depth chart across his unit, so does the equally untested secondary on the other side of the ball.
With Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray gone, three gaping holes are left in an Irish secondary ranked 38th in pass defense last year.
Notre Dame has scrambled to plug the gaps with remaining veterans.
The safety position isn’t as rocky; the Irish welcome back Jamoris Slaughter, who started 10 games last year, and Zeke Motta, who often rotated with Slaughter and started eight games.
Once Austin Collinsworth returns from a shoulder injury that has him sidelined til late October, the safeties will have another experienced player in the ranks.
The true puzzle lies at the cornerback position.
Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson and Cam McDaniel return from last year, though none of them played significant time at the position in 2011. Jalen Brown comes in as a highly-touted recruit and classmate KeiVarae Russell was moved from receiver to corner, giving the Irish six scholarship players in the unit.
Just how inexperienced are the corners? Jackson, a junior who came to Notre Dame as a receiver, is among the most veteran players in the group, and he spent most of last year on special teams.
Despite never having started a game at corner, Jackson is — by default — the “old guy” of the unit alongside fellow junior Lo Wood.
“I haven’t adapted to the word ‘old guy’ yet,” Jackson said after practice Monday. “Coming in, seeing the mistakes the younger guys are making and helping them. As you help them, they can help you.”
Back in March, head coach Brian Kelly touted Jackson’s potential, saying the junior “is going to be a heckuva football player for us.”
Motta and Jones have also seen Jackson’s improvement through the summer.
“They have stepped up their games miles,” Jones said of both Jackson and Slaughter. “They knew what they had to do coming into the season and they knew the pressure that would be put on them being our two veteran (defensive backs) and they definitely put in the work.”
Jones says what Jackson lacks in size, he makes up in physicality and ability to play the long ball.
At 6-feet tall and 185 pounds, Jackson has a physique similar to Gary Gray, his predecessor, at 5-11, 195 pounds.
As Jackson learns his responsibilities, he looks to the veteran safeties in camp to keep the secondary together.
“(Motta and Slaughter) are probably one of the main keys,” he said. “They’re the most vocal on the field, setting us up. Having two experienced guys behind us is definitely a bonus.”
He said that 11-on-11 drills against Irish receivers provide good game-day simulation for the unit.
“You’re going up against better kids, faster kids,” he said. “People who know how to stammer and trick a cornerback more. It brings you more toward the game and how the game goes.”
Jackson will likely be joined by Wood, who played in 10 games last year and grabbed an interception against Maryland that he ran back 57 yards for a touchdown.
Kelly thinks Atkinson and McDaniel will round out the next spots on the depth charts.
“Now they haven’t played a ton, but that’s what college football is about,” Kelly said of the four corners. “People graduate and it’s the next guy’s chance. We feel really comfortable with those four.”