#6 Defensive BacksIn 2009, Notre Dame's pass defense ranked 76th in yards allowed and 82nd in the telling statistic, Pass Efficiency Defense. The defensive unit finished 63rd in points allowed. This fall, those numbers improved to 42, 26, and 29 respectively.
Starters/key reserves: Senior safety Harrison Smith; senior cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Gary Gray; junior cornerback Robert Blanton; junior safety Jamoris Slaughter; sophomore safety Zeke Motta and freshman cornerback Lo Wood. Junior safety Dan McCarthy played sparingly, battling a hamstring injury most of the season.
IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 8 (of 12)
Quote to note: "I didn't lose the battle for the ball, I lost the decision." – Irish DB coach Chuck Martin explaining one coaching point regarding the battle for the ball in the air.
By the numbers: Smith finished second on the team with 86 tackles while Gray was tied for third with 59 stops. The senior corner was a consistent force in run support with seven games of five tackles or more. The pair combined for 18 pass break-ups (11 from Smith), more than half the team's total.
Speaking of top duo's, the corner combo of Gray and Blanton accrued 12 total tackles for loss with Blanton ranking third on the squad (7) despite filling a role as the team's "12th starter" as a nickel back.
Smith (4) and Walls (3) accounted for half of the team's interception total – the 14 picks tied the program's second highest season total of the last 15 years (the 2002 squad picked off 21 passes). Walls finished tied with Blanton for second on the unit with 7 pass break-ups. Smith had not intercepted a pass in his first 29 college games but corralled four in his last eight, including a game-sealing end zone grab at USC.
In his first season as a full-time player, sophomore Zeke Motta finished tied with senior Brian Smith and junior Darius Fleming for sixth on the team with 46 tackles while adding an interception, three passes defended and fumble recovery.
Best moments2010 had its share including a regular season-ending end zone interception by Harrison Smith at the Coliseum, but four players put forth individual game efforts that stood out:
- Purdue: Gary Gray earned the team's defensive MVP award with a 9-tackle, one PD effort in which five of his stops were within one yard of the line of scrimmage and none of the nine resulted after a Boilermakers first down. His pass breakup resulted in a goal line interception by Ian Williams.
- Pittsburgh: Harrison Smith recorded 13 tackles with two passes defended and an interception in a 23-17 win over the visiting Panthers. Smith had a second leaping interception – one that would have ended the game at midfield – overturned by the replay official.
- Three-game stretch: From the Game Three matchup at Michigan State through the Game Five win at Boston College, Robert Blanton recorded 10 tackles (2 for lost yardage), 4 pass breakups, 1 sack and 1 interception. Two of his breakups resulted in interceptions by teammates while another denied a touchdown to Stanford at the front pylon.
- Army: Along with fellow corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton (who started at outside linebacker vs. the Cadets), senior Darrin Walls deserves the lion's share of the effort for the defense's work vs. a dangerous triple-option offense. Walls returned an interception 42 yards for a touchdown to put the game out of reasonable reach, 24-3 early in the second half. He finished second with seven solo tackles (one for loss) with an additional pass breakup.
His corner mates Blanton and Gray combined for 9 tackles (1.5 for loss) while safeties Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter totaled 11 including two behind the line of scrimmage. Not a bad day at the office for a quintet of defensive backs.
Moment to forget: In 1989, Notre Dame lost a final shot at a comeback win in Miami – and a chance at back-to-back national titles – due partly to the infamous "3rd and 43" play. On October 31, 2010, the stakes were significantly lower, but fans reacted much the same after the secondary's breakdown on 3rd and 26 vs. Tulsa QB G.J. Kinne and relatively uncovered pass recipient, Ricky Johnson.
Trailing 27-25 with less than six minutes remaining, the Golden Hurricane converted the large down-and-distance noted above on a relatively simple down-and-out route in which safety Jamoris Slaughter offered too much room, then broke too late on Kinne's successful rocket throw to Johnson. The 31-yard completion vs. Notre Dame's 3-man rush/8-cover scheme kept the drive alive at the ND 42-yard line and Tulsa converted a go-ahead field goal six plays later.
The Irish fell 28-27 after freshman QB Tommy Rees was intercepted in the corner of the end zone from the Tulsa 19-yard line.
Class status: Senior Darrin Walls has exhausted his eligibility; senior Gary Gray is expected to apply for a 5th season while classmate Harrison Smith has already indicated that he will. Junior Robert Blanton will graduate after the 2011 season but classmate Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy can play through 2012 with a redshirt-season preserved after sitting out as true freshman in 2008.
Sophomore Zeke Motta has not redshirted; he can play through 2012 while freshman Lo Wood earned a letter on special teams as a rookie this fall and will thus be eligible through the 2013 campaign.
Final Analysis: Likely the first unit to be ranked "too low" the Irish defensive backs improved both statistically and through nearly every eye test imaginable from 2009 to the end of this season.
If you're splitting hairs (and comparing to those units ranked 1-5 above), there were still crucial breakdowns vs. Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Navy, Tulsa and yes, USC. Though the final potential dagger from that group fell incomplete.
Key to the turnaround from a miserable '09? Rarely did cornerbacks flail helplessly vs. the 50/50 ball, a Camp Question posed in August. The secondary yielded just nine passing touchdowns and but five in the season's final eight contests. 2010 a turnaround season for new DB coach Chuck Martin's group; five of the six main contributors return for 2011 with promising freshman Lo Wood ready to win the third cornerback role.