The Replacements: Cornerback

There's more to replacing graduating senior Darrin Walls than Lo Wood's likely ascension to the No. 3 cornerback role in 2011.

Brian Kelly's first Irish team is guaranteed to lose nine key players following the Sun Bowl. As many as nine more are eligible to apply for a fifth season while two others could declare for the NFL Draft.

Nine out the door

Nose guard Ian Williams, cornerback Darrin Walls, linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, running backs Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, wide receiver Duval Kamara, offensive guard Chris Stewart, and special teams regular Bobby Burger will conclude their collegiate careers in the December 31 Sun Bowl vs. Miami.

The second of several looks at the post-2010 Irish examines likely replacements for senior cornerback Darrin Walls, whose 2010 campaign was the best since his sophomore season of 2007.

For a review of the candidates to replace Kerry Neal (DROP linebacker) and Brian Smith (WILL linebacker), click here.

Starting cornerback Darrin Walls

Gary Gray was likely the team's best defensive back over the last three months. Nickel defender Robert Blanton made the most impact plays of the group, but field cornerback Darrin Walls' improvement in his final season keyed Notre Dame's markedly better downfield coverage.

With one game remaining, Walls ranks seventh all-time in the program with 19 passes broken up. His three 2010 interceptions were one more than his career total entering the season and his 39 total tackles (two for lost yardage) also marked a career best.

Blanton will be a senior next season; Gray is expected to apply for, and be granted, a fifth season of eligibility for 2011. The duo will likely start, but replacing Walls and his contributions to the Irish defense isn't as simple as it appears.

Open Field

Gray thrived this season as the boundary corner – a position suited to his aggressiveness and, more important, reliable tackling skills. Blanton too found a home as the team's third, almost roving cornerback.

The trio rotated, but Walls' deep speed is unrivaled by either of his veteran replacements: Blanton was at his best in zone coverage and near the line of scrimmage; Gray played at a near All-America level doing the same.

Neither is the prototype turn-and-run cornerback in man coverage though Gray should improve in that regard as he recovers from a season-long battle with a foot injury.

Both played the ball well downfield as students of the game displaying strong position coverage skills.

The 2011 spring development of sophomore-to-be Lo Wood is essential, notably his ability to play the field spot – one in which the ability to cover downfield receivers, often without safety help, is necessary.

If Wood can emerge as a reliable third cornerback – one that can man the field position in the defense – Blanton can again shift inside when necessary, lining up over the slot and wreaking havoc in the team's preferred zone looks.

Must youth be served? The Notre Dame staff, most notably defensive backs coach Chuck Martin, lauded Wood for his veteran approach and overall level of play in August, even noting that he was teaching players how to approach the daily grind of practice – a rarity for a true freshman.

Now consider how often you saw Wood from scrimmage this fall? Do any plays come immediately to mind? He was a regular on the Irish coverage teams, but the assimilation of a freshman cornerback to game action and collegiate defenses is not easy.

By all accounts, Wood was an ideal student of the game. He's skilled, a natural at the position (not just a raw athlete attempting to master new footwork, hip turns, etc.), and was a January 2010 enrollee, which gave him 15 extra practice sessions and several months with the program to prepare for his freshman season.

And yet he still barely saw scrimmage time behind a trio of talented veterans.

Though the third spot is more open heading into 2011 than it was this past fall, that gulf between the practice field and the back line of a college defense is the reality incoming corner prospects Josh Atkinson (his speed could help in the field cornerback role), Jalen Brown, Bennett Okotcha, (and possibly incoming safety competitor Matthias Farley) must face when they hit campus.

Due partly to injuries, Gray waited more than two years before he became a regular contributor. He'll enter his fifth-season next fall as one of the nation's best.

Walls earned a Day One starting spot (vs. Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson, no less) as a freshman in 2006, but was nowhere near the player three years later (last fall) that he is today.

Blanton starred as a freshman, struggled as a sophomore, and reclaimed his mojo as a junior. He'll form a top tier tandem with Gray next fall.

But the key to the Irish pass defense over a 12-game slate might be its third corner, sophomore Lo Wood. The early emergence of a fourth would be gravy, and would also position the Irish secondary as potentially the program's best since 2002.

Next in the series: The replacements for senior running backs Armando Allen and Robert Hughes

Junior NFL Prospects: Wide Receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

Seniors who could return for 5th-year:
Safety: Harrison Smith
Cornerback: Gary Gray
Offensive Linemen: Taylor Dever, Matt Romine, Andrew Nuss
Defensive Lineman: Emeka Nwankwo
Tight End: Mike Ragone
Kicker/Punter: David Ruffer and Brandon Walker (not expected to return after missing two seasons with a back injury).
Linebacker: Steve Paskorz

Note: 5th-year prospects will be reviewed separately. Top Stories