The Notre Dame defense suffered three early breakdowns – two of which were readily attributable to the secondary – in a loss to Michigan. Three touchdown passes followed seven days later, including the game-winner in a disheartening, shocking defeat in East Lansing.
Three games, four TD passes, and two other long throws that set up rushing scores for opponents inside the ND 5-yard line...yes it was an ugly start to the 2010 season as footballs again flew freely vs. the back line of defense in South Bend.
After a dominant effort by the cornerbacks in a Game One win over Purdue, it appeared the Irish defensive backs as a unit had regressed to their 2009 form – as one of the nation's worst major conference teams defending the pass.
Thankfully for the Irish defense (and fan base), teams, units, and players aren't judged in late September.
"I think a lot of (the improvement) has to do with the confidence and camaraderie we've built with each other through the rocky part of the season," Walls said of a defense that allowed one touchdown – on a two-yard drive, no less – over the season's final 15 quarters. "I think we kept doing the same thing from the beginning, and believing in our coaching staff and in ourselves, and the confidence grew and that helped us on the field."
The Numbers GameThe Irish yielded just five passing touchdowns over the final nine games; two in the season's final six…none in November. (And if you're splitting hairs, two of the five aforementioned TD passes were at the expense of a linebacker.)
After giving up a minimum of 220 passing yards per game over the first six contests, Walls and his secondary mates surrendered no more than 196 in the season's second half.
The late-season excellence of senior safety Harrison Smith was instrumental in a 3-0 finish, but the consistent play of senior Gary Gray and the improved play of Walls and versatile junior cornerback Robert Blanton helped turn the nation's No. 82 ranked pass efficiency defense from a year ago into a Top 25 unit in 2010.
Coupled with the 55th-ranked rush D, Notre Dame posted its best combined defensive rankings (pass/run) since 2002 and the fourth-best at the program since the 1993 season (only 1996, 2001 and 2002 were better, statistically).
"Me, Gary and RJ, we feed off each other and we take pride in what we do," Walls said. "We don't want to let each other down and we don't want to let our defense down. We know a lot of the pressure is on us in the secondary but we accept that challenge. Our confidence has grown and Coach (Chuck) Martin and Coach (Kerry) Cooks have done a great job with us."
Twelve of the team's 14 interceptions were courtesy the secondary: Smith (4); Walls (3); Blanton (1); Gray (1); Motta (1); Slaughter (1) and Ian Williams (tipped by Gary Gray then caught by the Irish nose guard near the goal line vs. Purdue).
Motta's pick was secured in the Irish End end zone at Michigan State after a Blanton deflection while Slaughter's Stanford INT occurred inside the Irish 5-yard line after a similar Blanton assist. Blanton tipped his lone interception before reeling it in at Boston College as well.
Blanton and Walls added the team's pair of non-offensive touchdowns in 2010: the latter on a 42-yard INT TD return vs. Army in Game 11; the former a blocked punt, scoop and score vs. Utah in Game 10.
As for Walls' career-best three picks – they were a long-time coming after just one interception in 2009, following a season spent at home in Pittsburgh in 2008.
"I probably could have had a couple more – I dropped a couple," Walls offered. "I'm not a big stats guy, but it's nice to have the (three interceptions)."
Final challengeThe ‘Canes boasts three receivers with more than 35 receptions including star senior Leonard Hankerson's team-leading 66. The 6'3" 205-pounder finished with 1,085 receiving yards (169 more than Irish star Michael Floyd) and 12 touchdowns this season. Hankerson has notched 21 TD grabs in his career including 18 over his last 20 contests.
He's ably backed by junior Travis Benjamin (40 receptions this fall; 87 in his career with 10 TD and nearly 1,500 yards) and junior LaRon Byrd (37 receptions this season with 91 in his career and six TD). The 6'4" Byrd represents a physical mismatch in tandem with the 6'3" and extremely athletic Hankerson.
It's a challenge Gray believes the Irish cornerbacks are ready to handle.
"They're probably the best receiving corps – their front three guys – that we've seen this season.
"They try to get (Hankerson) the ball and Benjamin is the deep guy," Gray continued. "They run double moves with him so we really have to keep a close eye on those guys."
Exacerbating the challenge is a quarterback that can throw on the move. Erratic but intermittently spectacular, junior Jacory Harris can escape pressure, but then all bets are off as the gifted deep ball passer looks to burn teams down field rather than simply chew up the chains as a runner.
Harris, who has a penchant for keeping both teams in the contest with 38 TD and 29 picks over the last two seasons, missed most of November after a vicious, concussive hit vs. Virginia on October 30. He returned for the season finale, a 23-20 loss to South Florida that ended the tenure of former head coach Randy Shannon.
In Harris' stead stepped freshman Stephan Morris who, according to Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, can also beat a team with his feet setting up the pass.
"I think both quarterbacks are going to play," Diaco said prior to Christmas. "Jacory and Morris are very similar players. I think he (Harris) does a great job of throwing the ball on the move. Both players do, they're very similar, athletic players that throw well on the move. Working to keep (them) contained back there will go a long way."
That job falls on the Irish front seven. On the back end, a trio of confident corners is ready for anything Harris and the ‘Canes may throw their way.