For the first time all season, Lo Wood didn’t see the field. It made for a painful morning after Wake Forest for the sophomore cornerback, who went into Kerry Cooks’ office the next day searching for directions off the sideline. That’s when tough truths started to come.
Notre Dame’s cornerbacks coach told Wood he wasn’t playing physical enough, wasn’t practicing focused enough, wasn’t working hard enough. Cooks threw down a gauntlet, hoping Wood would pick it off, maybe return it for a touchdown.
“I don’t want to be the guy who just sits around and watches your team win without you,” Wood said. “It wasn’t that easy to (go to Cooks’ office), but I knew if I wanted to do something better, if I wanted to move forward with football and my career, it was something that I had to do.”
Two days later Wood staged one of the best practices of his college career, earning the golden football, which goes to the team’s best defensive back. Six days later Wood picked off Maryland quarterback Danny O’Brien and returned that pass for a 57-yard touchdown.
That moment won’t define Wood’s sophomore season, but it made sure the touchdown he allowed to Robert Woods against USC won’t either. Wood had to wait three weeks to atone for that mistake, pushing the boundaries of the cornerback cliché that the position needs a short memory.
“I think that’s something Lo kept inside of him,” Cooks said. “He learned that, ‘Hey I’ve got to be ready, regardless of the snap, regardless of the call.’ Part of it was in that particular situation he really wasn’t ready to go, which he needed to be.”
The Woods play, where Wood got beat outside in the end zone’s back corner without safety help, wasn’t the game-winning touchdown against USC, but it was a game-clinching one. It was also the moment when Wood dropped out of the cornerback rotation and became a garbage time player.
He’d already been benched on special teams for Josh Atkinson, reducing a potential starter next year after Gary Gray and Robert Blanton depart to a defensive extra. That wasn’t what Brian Kelly, Cooks or Wood had in mind when the season started, as the staff saw a sophomore who could spell starters with games still on the line.
“Beginning of the season I thought I was going to play a lot more, but it’s not because they didn’t pick me more,” Wood said. “It’s just I didn’t show them the best I can in certain weeks of practice. I kind of let them down.
“At the beginning of the season I wasn’t as focused as I should have been. When I did go in the game I didn’t play to the best of my ability like I did in practice.”
Getting benched on defense and special teams tested Wood’s hold on the “4 H’s,” a high school mantra inspired by his father, Lo Wood Sr. That creed demands Wood stay hungry, keep his head up, have fun and stay humble. The fourth tenet was never a problem, but the first three had been tested since training camp.
With that pick-six on his resume and the same starting jobs still open next season, Wood seems set with his motivation the rest of this season. The next time he needs to move on to the next play, odds are he won’t have to wait three weeks to do it.
“That gave me a big confidence boost,” Wood said. “I know I can go out there, get an interception and run it back. Even if I don’t, I still have that motivation.”