Notre Dame football: Captain Jackson needs to be calming voice


Al Lesar


If there’s an authoritative voice on the Notre Dame defense, now is the time for it to be heard.

The Irish football team stumbled into a Big House-ful of adversity last week.

To the untrained eye, this may be what a crossroads looks like.

Navigating that precarious intersection between salvaging a season and a free-fall to oblivion is critical. No room for an uninspired effort at Purdue Saturday.

Time for Bennett Jackson to step up and sound off.

He needs to earn that “C” on his jersey.

The 6-foot, 195-pound cornerback has just been getting comfortable with being a senior captain. The way the Irish defense was manhandled at Michigan has caused a plea for some — especially Jackson — to transcend the comfort zone in an effort to rectify a difficult situation.

Michigan’s Devin Gardner was selected as the Davey O’Brien Award’s quarterback of the week thanks to the surgery he performed on the Notre Dame secondary last week. He threw for 294 yards and ran for 82, moving the ball almost effortlessly.

Jackson had nine tackles, but was flagged for a critical pass interference penalty late in the game. Jackson and fellow corner KeiVarae Russell were picked on by Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three scores.

“Look, (the cornerbacks) have got to play the game the way they can play it,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “In other words, (with) more confidence. They have got to go out there and compete. They have got the ability to do it.

“We’ve got to get it out of them. We’ve got to compete in practice, and we’ve got to carry that over to Saturdays.”

It’s painful sometimes to live in the past. Last year’s amazing run was officially buried in early August. Understood.

But, just for argument’s sake, how would Kapron Lewis-Moore or Manti Te’o have responded to what happened to the defense Saturday? Those two were consummate leaders. Nobody would have had to have prodded them to speak up and take charge; to make sure that never happened again.

“Bennett Jackson is a captain for us,” Kelly said. “He has the responsibility to come back and bounce back from not playing his very best. We are all confident he’ll do that.

“The key is to not make it two games, or three games, or four games. It’s to take this game and play at a higher level. I’m pretty confident that they will.”

Big difference between “pretty” confident and “absolutely” confident.

“At the end of the day, there’s a bunch of guys who step forward and say things for each unit,” Jackson said. “A lot of the times it’s me and (safety) Matthias (Farley) talking in the back; (Dan) Fox and Carlo (Calabrese), linebackers, they’re constantly talking back and forth. There’s a bunch of

communication going on, and leadership.

“Me, personally, when I see it going a little slower, I try to add some extra energy; give some words.”

“We’ve been doing it from the start,” said Fox. “There’s a lot of young guys on the field. We’ve just kind of taken them under our wing, a few senior leaders.

“We don’t think, ‘OK, we’re going to get through this.’ You have to dominate it.”

When Jackson talks about the many voices on defense, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that the message is hard to get across. One single, solitary leader — a la Te’o — needs to rise above the rest to get everyone’s attention.

“We’re definitely trying to push one another in practice,” Jackson said. “We have a high standard on defense. We feel like we haven’t played to the level we expect of ourselves. We’re trying to push that level up; push everyone through practice.

“Intensity and energy in practice (are critical); everybody flying to the ball. Just being vocal; communication; positive communication, motivating one another.”

Jackson said he has made a concerted effort to get Russell, a sophomore, through what had to have been one of the worst nights of his 15 collegiate starts.

“You really just have to keep (a young guy like Russell) positive,” Jackson said. “I’ve always said to him, ‘Play for the next play.’ You can’t let the previous play eat you up because it’s just going to take your game down. He’s got a good understanding of that.

“That’s really the whole defense. You have to play for the next play. You can’t get yourself caught up in previous plays.”

There were plenty of poor previous plays to fret about. Notre Dame’s inability to contain a mobile quarterback causes concern about Saturday’s matchup with Boilermaker QB Rob Henry — who was a dangerous runner until a knee injury two years ago.

Relegated to third team on the quarterback depth chart last year, Henry got on the field as a running back and receiver last year — meaning there still may be a burst in his legs.

“You always have to be on your guard,” Jackson said of the lesson learned from last week. “You have to go into every week expecting to go into a great war. It was a great game (against Michigan). Both teams battled. We have to keep pushing ourselves and be more disciplined.

“(Michigan was) a great team. I definitely felt we didn’t execute the way we pride ourselves on. That’s something we use for motivation. We’re trying to push our level to the next level.”

With the chips on the table, one voice has to make the call.

Jackson’s time is now.

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (98) rolls away from pressure from Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER