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Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

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Notre Dame secondary goes from shaky to solid

In August, few outside Notre Dame's locker room expected the Irish to play for a National Championship. Part of that pessimism revolved around the Irish starting an inexperienced quarterback, but another -- and probably larger -- reason involved the team's secondary.

Lo Wood's ruptured Achilles' tendon, suffered late in fall camp, thrust KeiVarae Russell into a starting role. Wood was expected to be a top contributor to a shaky group, but instead, a true freshman who never even played cornerback until August was thrust opposite of Bennett Jackson on the team's depth chart.

While Wood's injury looked to be a critical blow to Notre Dame's pass defense, those who had seen Russell in preseason practice had far more confidence.

"He was very athletic and he had a really quick first step, really quick first movements," Jackson said of his first impressions of Russell. "I thought he was someone who once he got tuned in a little bit would be a great benefit to the defense."

Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks saw the same thing.

"Some guys are just natural with feet and flipping their hips, and (have) gifted athletic ability," Cooks explained. "So he was one of those guys that I identified from day one, just having the ability to play corner and be able to do the jobs, to move lateral, to cover one-on-ones. You knew that once you saw him running around, that if he was willing to, he could be special."

By all accounts, Russell has put in the time and effort necessary for a greenhorn at his position. Cooks said Russell will incessantly ask him for feedback, as well as getting tips from Jackson and the rest of Notre Dame's cornerbacks.

"You got a kid like that's whos willing and open to expose himself to criticism and coaching, what more could you ask for?" Cooks said.

There's still plenty of room for Russell to improve, which can be said about the rest of the Irish secondary. But Notre Dame will enter the BCS Championship with the nation's No. 21 pass defense, allowing 194.4 yards per game and only seven touchdowns -- the same number of passing scores allowed by Alabama, and only bested by Boise State, Vanderbilt and Florida.

Related: Kelly's growth leads Notre Dame down championship path

As improbable of an achievement as that would've seemed before the season, after safety Jamoris Slaughter tore his Achilles' tendon against Michigan State, that kind of success seemed even less likely.

Slaughter's injury thrust Matthias Farley -- who redshirted as a wide receiver in 2011 -- into Notre Dame's starting lineup. While Farley played a little safety in high school, he admitted that experience didn't exactly carry over to college, especially when he trained as a receiver for his first year on campus.

He flipped to safety in time for spring practice in 2012, but had a ways to go before he could be considered as a viable backup.

"I thought hed probably help us on special teams and would be a guy that would learn through the year," safeties coach Bob Elliot said. "I thought he probably would need this year to figure out how to play defense."

Farley's high football I.Q. and dedication between spring and fall camp transformed him from an afterthought into a legitimate option. He's leaned heavily on Elliot, referring to the seasoned coach as being "monumental" to his growth. Having Motta -- the lone veteran among Notre Dame's secondary -- in his corner has been an asset, too.

"Just to see the way hes evolved, his reads and his understanding of the game has been pretty impressive," Motta said.

Inside the Irish: All-American center Jones key to line battle

Notre Dame's pass defense success isn't just the product of quality play from its four starters. Danny Spond has carved out success as Notre Dame's "dog" linebacker in its 3-4 formation, and Manti Te'o nearly leads the nation with seven interceptions.

Some will point to the ability of Notre Dame's front seven to put pressure on a quarterback as another reason for the success of the team's secondary, too. That's a fair assessment, although it's one Jackson bristled at earlier in the year. This is a prideful group, one that has used its doubters as motivation.

For this unit, a lack of experience hasn't mattered. Learning on the job has been par for the course, and so far, it hasn't come back to burn Notre Dame.

"They just took those baby steps, and finally youre starting to see them piece it all together," Cooks said. "And its been fun to watch that group go from zero to 10 by the end of the season. And now, their confidence is high, as well as it should be."

Three Things to Watch: Bulls dance with Warriors

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Three Things to Watch: Bulls dance with Warriors

Is there any better way to break in your new Black Friday television than Bulls-Warriors tonight? We think not. Coverage starts at 9 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live, and the game is also available to stream via the NBC Sports app

Here are three things to keep your eye on: 

1. Not the score. Let's be honest: the Bulls probably won't sneak out a win at the Oracle. In fact, ESPN's matchup predictor only gives Fred Hoiberg's young squad a 2.9 percent chance to come up victorious. UIC has three times better odds against juggernaut Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Sunday, in case you needed some context.  

With the talent gap in mind, though, it will be important for the Bulls to come out with high energy. The Warriors will likely take the contest lightly in the first half, so starting off strong reflects well on the coaching staff and starters. Stay within 10 points by the half, and that's considered a massive triumph. 

2. Lauri Markkanen vs. Draymond Green? Assuming the Dubs start out with Green on Markkanen, this will be rookie's biggest test of the season. Green is an elite defender, capable of wrecking gameplans from the tip. He's physical, quick and athletic. 

Markkanen is coming off two duds on the West Coast trip, but his aggressiveness hasn't wavered. It'll be important for him to continue to attack even with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year hounding him. 

3. Steph, KD and Klay doin' work. The Bulls offense hasn't exactly been a thing of beauty through the first 16 games. Their offensive rating is a brutal 94.4, ranked last in the NBA. Golden State, on the other hand, sits at the top with a rating of 113.1. 

Take some time to admire the skills of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson because when it comes to working cohesively on offense, they've set the gold standard. 

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

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USA TODAY

What Chicago sports fans should be thankful for

Families gather and people talk about things they are thankful for on Thanksgiving, but what are Chicago sports fans happy for now?

Raised expectations on the North Side

Got to be thankful that a “disappointing” season is winning the division and losing in the NLCS. The expectations have skyrocketed, and that’s thanks to a ridiculous nucleus of bats and a steady front office. Not many clubs can say that. Also, though, it’s important to be appreciative of the Wrigley bar stretch. They may charge $8 for a Miller Lite, but it’s always a damn good party.

Javy tags, too. Don't forget Javy tags.

Rebuild sparking hope in White Sox fans

Where to begin? Obviously, be thankful for the plethora of young talent that will soon take over the South Side. Be thankful for Avi Time (while you still can). Be thankful that taking your friends or family to a game won’t cause you to take out a second mortgage. Be thankful for the 2020 World Series and, of course, 2020 MVP Eloy Jimenez. But most importantly, be thankful that Rick Hahn’s phone stays buzzing.

Eddie O back in the booth for the Blackhawks

The Blackhawks are having a rough start to the season, but at least Eddie Olczyk is back in the booth. The longtime Blackhawks broadcaster returned to the booth on Oct. 18 after missing time while undergoing chemotherapy treatments for colon cancer.

With some of the key names from the Blackhawks’ title runs either leaving or being unable to play this season (in the case of Marian Hossa), Blackhawks fans are probably thankful to see a familiar face and hear a familiar voice during games.

Lauri Markkanen leading the Bulls rebuild

OK, there’s not much to be thankful for about the current Bulls team. At 3-13, the Bulls are tied for the fewest wins in the NBA (maybe in the long-term that’s something to be thankful for as well). However, Zach LaVine’s pending debut after his eventual return from injury should help create some excitement.

The thing Bulls fans really should be thankful for this year is the play of rookie Lauri Markkanen. The 20-year-old leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and rebounds (8.3 per game) while shooting at a high percentage (34.2 percent on threes and 50.6 percent on twos). It’s only the beginning of the Bulls’ rebuild, but Markkanen is a good start.

Mitchapalooza

If a few things broke the Bears’ way, Chicagoans could have been grateful that the team was finally out of the cellar. Instead, we’ll settle for the fact that there seems to be some building blocks already in place. Mitchell Trubisky, Tarik Cohen, Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks seem to fit that category. Also, some may be thankful that this is likely John Fox’s last season at the helm.

Fire ending a playoff drought

After finishing dead last in MLS in 2015 and 2016, the Fire were one of the most improved teams in the league in 2017. After posting the third best record in the league, the Fire made a first playoff appearance since 2012.

The playoff run didn’t last long with the Fire losing a play-in game at home, but the arrival of Bastian Schweinsteiger and the league’s leading goal-scorer, Nemanja Nikolic, helped fill the stadium with six sellouts and gave Fire fans something to cheer for.