This 5 player series dissects returning Irish players whose careers appear to be approaching "Now or Never" junctures. Each featured athlete enters Notre Dame's 2013 Fall Camp as a Junior. As members of the consensus Top 10 2011 Irish Recruiting Class, they know two of their original class members almost assuredly will go in the 1st Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Others in their Irish locker room adorn multiple pre-season All-America and positional "watch" lists. With another élite class in 2013 set to take their first reps in August, many of these upperclassmen will find a depth chart featuring experienced veterans on top and talented newcomers below .
Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson
We'll go ahead and double-dip today on two junior cornerbacks whose careers are on extremely similar trajectories … and for them it's not necessarily a great thing. Both players faced a bit of a "put up or shut up" moment during the 2012 Fall Camp when projected starting CB Lo Wood was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. Most thought Brown & Atkinson were already in line to take on significant roles last fall before Wood's injury as general knowledge had them on an already unstable two-deep. Neither player made an impact during the run to Miami and now seem to face Now or Never crossroads in South Bend.
2011-12 In Review
The 247 Rankings placed Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson as the 52nd & 54th ranked cornerbacks respectively in the 2011 recruiting class. Brown was an all-state player in Texas who, on paper, fit the long, lean, and fast mold that Irish Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco coveted for corners in his scheme. Atkinson was an élite level sprinter but was only a 2nd-team All-Area player and many considered him a throw-in to land his more highly touted twin brother – projected 2013 Notre Dame starting running back George Atkinson III. As a freshmen in 2011 Jalen Brown did not see game action and unlike Josh retains 3 full years of eligibility between 2013-15. Atkinson also appeared destined for Notre Dame's "redshirt" in 2011 after not getting on the field in games 1-5. He joined the special teams units in the final 8 games and recorded his first tackle against NAVY, which accounted for half his season total (2).
The 2012 season would see two new Notre Dame starters at CB after the graduation of 2011's tandem of Robert Blanton & Gary Gray. When Wood went down with his injury late in Fall Camp, Brian Kelly seemed to reference Atkinson & Brown when stating, "Now they're on stage. They get an opportunity over the next 10 days to determine who that's going to be." Kelly was also quoted that Brown & Atkinson had "improved dramatically". See the AP article on ESPN.com regarding the injury and all signs pointed to Atkinson & Brown as the only legitimate candidates to take the first snap against NAVY.
Brian Kelly is a known troll of the media and Irish fan-base, but when he took the podium one week after Wood's injury and announced freshman KeiVarae Russell had emerged as the starter it came as a shock to even the team's most entrenched insiders. Russell had been recruited as a running back and most believed his stint as an Irish defensive back was merely to battle depth in 2012; opinion was Russell would hopefully redshirt and vie for RB snaps upon the graduation of Cierre Wood & Theo Riddick the following spring. Russell was not only named the starter last August, but he clamped down on the role en route to a Freshman All-America season (FWAA, CBS, Scout, Sporting News) that kept Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson off the field for anything resembling meaningful snaps.
Stats – In 2012 Atkinson saw action in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, and racked up 5 tackles bringing his career total to 7 stops in 18 games. Brown saw action in 7 games and tallied two tackles. While Atkinson has seen more time on the field, Jalen Brown is the only one of the two with a Pass Breakup so … there's that.
2013 Depth Chart
For Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson, the depth chart for this fall is much less inviting than this time a year ago. Both 2012 starters can be found on Preseason All-America teams and reports indicate Lo Wood is ready for a return to form. While sophomore Elijah Shumate remains listed at Safety by UND.com, he filled in regularly in 2012 as the CB in nickel and dime defenses. Another 2013 sophomore, Nicky Baratti, saw crunch-time minutes in 2012. Baratti & Shumate will battle to start opposite 2012 revelation Mathias Farley at Safety and both seem destined to take nickel and dime package snaps over Atkinson & Brown. The DB stable will also get the début of monster sophomore safety John Turner, who sat out 2012. Another name to watch early is incoming freshman and 5-Star recruit Max Redfield. Recruited as a safety, if Redfield is getting early playing time for the Irish defense, it's going to be at the expense of Atkinson & Brown. Rounding out the overhaul of the CB depth chart will be incoming freshmen Cole Luke, Devin Butler, and Rashad Kinlaw – ALL of whom had notably higher recruiting grades than Atkinson & Brown.
Is It Now Or Never?
As we head into Notre Dame's Fall Camp, the writing on the wall for Josh Atkinson & Jalen Brown suggests both may need to make huge strides and impressions to avoid being lost in the shuffle that is the Irish defensive backfield. Even with dramatic improvement by either player, the question now looms – are they talented enough to play for this Irish defense? Brian Kelly referenced last fall that both were more than fast enough to get on the field but neither did. What was the issue preventing them from getting anything resembling an in-game tryout? With the overflow of talented skill players heading into South Bend over the past two recruiting cycles, Atkinson & Brown may find themselves fighting to keep their special teams roles just 11 months removed from a battle to be named a Notre Dame starter.
All things considered, 2013 will mostly mirror 2012 for these players. Aside from a rash of injuries and/or a want to preserve eligibility of most of the incoming DBs – Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson will continue to make their mark solely on special teams. If either can break out and become the elite-level gunner on punts and kickoffs that Bennett Jackson was in 2010/11, then maybe they can crack some of Diaco's five to seven man DB packages. I don't see that happening. One or both may remain on the official two-deep, but snaps at CB will be few and far between. Lo Wood apparently instills more confidence in the coaching staff even after his major injury and the back-ups at safety will all prove to be better fits for Diaco's plans. It's tough to say this about guys who've appeared to do all the right things, but the door knocked last August and nobody answered. It may not knock again.
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