2013 review: Once again, Notre Dame's secondary did an excellent job limiting big plays and totaled the same number of interceptions (eight) it did in 2012. In fact, as a unit it had more passes defended (26) than it did in 2012's run to the BCS Championship (22).
But Notre Dame's pass defense still came out looking suspect. Perhaps that's because opponents converted red zone possessions into touchdowns 52 percent of the time, up about 18 percent from 2012. And Notre Dame forced six fewer turnovers than it did in 2012, too.
So maybe this is where Manti Te'o absence hurt Notre Dame the greatest. As a unit, Notre Dame's secondary statistically wasn't a whole lot worse in 2013 than it was in 2012. But the defense took a step back, and some of that regression got pinned on the secondary.
[MORE: Notre Dame unit breakdown: LBs]
Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley may have regressed, but KeiVarae Russell made strides and the debuts of Cole Luke and Devin Butler added depth the Irish didn't have in 2012. There were more big-time breakdowns, too: Touchdowns allowed against Michigan (Jeremy Gallon's 61-yarder) and Oklahoma (Blake Bell's 26-yard strike late in the second half) were particularly damning.
Without much of a pass rush or an elite Mike linebacker, Notre Dame's defense was bound to take a step back. But perhaps the secondary wasn't at the greatest fault for it.
Departures: Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood
2014 outlook: Notre Dame's entire safety unit returns (Austin Collinsworth, reportedly and unsurprisingly, is in line for a fifth year) and should add 2013 five-star recruit Max Redfield to the mix. JuJu Smith — a five-star safety from Long Beach, Calif., remains interested in Notre Dame two weeks from signing day, too.
Russell wants to be the best cornerback in college football; while that's a lofty goal, he very well could become a shutdown corner as soon as this fall. Butler and Luke both logged significant minutes as freshmen, and one of them should slide into the starting lineup.
This is a unit that could sneakily become the best on Notre Dame's defense next fall, especially if Redfield is able to realize his blue-chip potential.
X-Factor: Here's what Russell said after the Pinstripe Bowl, in which he has three pass breakups and one interception:
"It took two seasons to do it, but when you're an offensive player your whole life it's tough to actually get that the first year. I think that first year was a learning experience. This year is really getting into that position, and going into next year I'm a full-blown corner now. I really believe i'm going to be one of the best, and I''m going to keep working on it until I'm the best."
Russell came to Notre Dame with no experience as a cornerback — he starred as a running back in high school — but seems to have a pretty good grasp on the position now with 26 starts under his belt.
"He played very well, and it showed today the talents that he truly has," linebacker Jaylon Smith said after the Pinstripe Bowl. "A lot of quarterbacks don't throw to his side, so the stats may not have showed, but today he was able to display that."