Three to make two

A pair of Irish safeties are ready to follow their leader with breakout campaigns.

Seven seasons had passed since Notre Dame's best pass defenses of the decade (the 2001-2002 units) and a group that could be considered, well, passable, in the eyes of Irish fans.

And September 2010 featured a few familiar horror scenes in South Bend as well, when new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin's unit allowed four scores through the air in back-to-back defeats at the hands of a pair of rivals from Michigan.

But over the final nine regular season contests, Martin's secondary morphed into a team strength, yielding just five passing scores through the end of the regular season – just three to opposing wide receivers.

Not only did the group pick off 18 passes – the most at the program since the aforementioned '02 campaign – it yielded fewer scores than any of its 12 predecessors dating back to the 1997 season.

This season's backfield lost one member of the 2010 group to graduation (cornerback Darrin Walls) but gained a position coach, as former NFL safety Kerry Cooks moved from coaching the outside linebackers to work with the more familiar position of cornerback.

"We ask our safeties to go through a lot of different techniques and keys with their eyes – also with our corners," Cooks noted of the change. "To have the ability to put two coaches back there where we can separate and coach those techniques to the individual position makes a lot of sense and it's been fun."

Talented Trio

Martin's charges are the safeties, three of which will see ample playing time this fall.

"Right now it feels great," said junior field/free safety Zeke Motta. "We have a good rotation and everybody is fresh out there. We're playing full-speed every play. When you're not tired, you get out there and it allows you to play faster."

Motta can finally play faster thanks to his patient mentor, Martin.

"It's gone exactly how I thought it would have with him; it's been a slow process," Martin said of Motta's development after a freshman season spent as a dime package linebacker under defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.

"He knew it was going to be a slow process, but you're (Martin was) on him every day and you see these little strides he's been making for 20 straight months. I told him, ‘I don't know if it's going to be six weeks from now or four years from now,' but it looks like he's getting to the point where he's comfortable and getting confident."

Not told of his position coach's assessment, Motta offered similar thoughts.

"I feel a thousand times more comfortable in the defense and the most comfortable I've felt on the field," he noted. "I would say the thing I've improved on the most is the communication aspect; but then also playing faster and having that ability to recognize what the offense is doing."

Back in the fold

Another safety that knows better what the opponent is doing is Jamoris Slaughter. The rugged senior was happy to begin the hitting aspect of camp on Wednesday and anxious to put an injury-truncated 2010 behind him.

"Sitting out all that time hurt, but it gave me a chance to watch film and understand the game more," Slaughter explained of an eight-week span in which he was never healthy and didn't start after earning the gig for the 2010 opener. "It allowed me to understand what the coaches wanted from the sidelines, and I think with the game experience I still had, and with me playing hurt, it still helped me out this year, knowing what I should and shouldn't do."

As for the first day of contact since the spring, Slaughter noted: "First day of pads. We got a chance to see who's physical and not."

According to Motta, the entire starting unit and main rotation defenders can be described by the former.

"Everyone on defense is a playmaker with great athletic ability," Motta offered excitedly. "If you're not there (too late to the ball), someone is backing you up. In other words, it makes everyone's job easier because of the great athletes around you.

"We're working to be great, and to be and relentless," he continued. "We all believe that. And we need that mentality every day."

Martin believes a breakthrough awaits his junior safety.

"My hope, and I think it'll go this way, is that he'll start making some plays and he'll start to show up a little bit, then he'll start to show up a lot," Martin offered. "Maybe not the Harrison (Smith) type of *breakout, but along those lines, where you guys are coming to me saying ‘Zeke made that big play in the fourth quarter.'"

(*Smith picked off seven passes over the final nine games after not recording an interception in the first 29 of his Irish career.)

Tweak, not overhaul

According to Martin, Smith's 2010 turnaround was one part coaching, several parts Harrison.

"There were two factors to me that changed his game," Martin answered. "One, technically, he was a poor tackler. That's really the only tangible coaching (improvement): we worked hard on his tackling; he worked hard on his tackling. He improved his technique.

"The second was just confidence. A lot of times there are plenty of fixes (needed to improve a defensive back), but the rest of (Smith's skill set) was just off the charts. I saw greatness in him a long time before he did. I told him, ‘You have greatness in you' a long time before he saw it. He probably looked at me like, ‘Where'd they get this guy from?'" Martin joked.

Martin offered myriad reasons for Smith's waning confidence, one of which is likely to hit home with Irish website subscribers.

"His confidence (was shot) because of moving positions (Smith played strong side linebacker, free safety, and nickel linebacker over a 29-game span before Brian Kelly's arrival), lack of success, and head-ducking tackling," Martin explained before adding. "And reading the chat rooms – seriously, its part of the deal here. You don't think these college kids read about themselves? Good or bad?

"Then he got in games and he was doing okay; then started making plays, then it was like riding a bike. You start making plays; you do it the rest of your life. You can do it every day. He should never, not do it."

None shall pass?

Notre Dame's 2010 secondary allowed fewer touchdowns – in some instances, by a large margin – than any of its 11 predecessors.

  • 1998: Total TD passes allowed – 11...Talented safety trio of Deke Cooper, A'Jani Sanders, and Tony Driver starred for the secondary.
  • 1999: Total TD passes allowed – 21…A lack of pass rush (just 18 total sacks) greatly hindered the defensive backfield's cause.
  • 2000: Total TD passes allowed – 15…33 sacks and 23 forced turnovers were instrumental for the 9-3 Irish.
  • 2001: Total TD passes allowed – 13…An underrated season defensively for Bob Davie's final group, one that allowed just 16 rushing scores but finished with a paltry 14 touchdowns from its offense.
  • 2002: Total TD passes allowed – 12…the decade's best defense broke down in the regular season finale and bowl loss, surrendering 4 and 2 touchdowns, respectively.
  • 2003: Total TD passes allowed – 16…buoyed by a decade-best 39 sacks (13.5 courtesy Justin Tuck).
  • 2004: Total TD passes allowed – 23…an astounding 14 of which occurred in the final three contests.
  • 2005: Total TD passes allowed – 18…also benefited from 31 sacks up front
  • 2006: Total TD passes allowed – 24…the secondary ranked as a true team weakness despite 31 sacks – a total not since matched at the program.
  • 2007: Total TD passes allowed – 19…the pass defense ranked second nationally in yards allowed due largely to a rush defense that yielded the most yards per game in program history.
  • 2008: Total TD passes allowed – 15…the range of free safety David Bruton and addition of Kyle McCarthy played key roles in the improved secondary. 50/50 ball in Corwin Brown's last season at the helm.
  • 2010: Total TD passes allowed – 11…and just five over the final nine regular season contests with but two occurring over the final six regular season games.

Of note: Bob Davie's first squad in 1997 yielded just five passing scores. Opponents however ran at will, hitting pay dirt 22 times on the ground and averaging nearly 185 yards per game vs. the 7-6 Irish.

Comfortable situation

Barring injury, Smith will likely be the only 13-game starter among the safety trio; Slaughter and Motta are too close to call and both bring necessary skills to the table. Both will likely see similar playing time in the base defense, the nickel, and the dime.

And both are ready for the challenge.

"It's not that difficult; a little bit different calls," Slaughter offered of playing either the field/free safety or boundary/strong safety (occupied by Smith) position. "I can play both and play nickel and I feel like I can still play corner," he added of his freshman and sophomore season position slotting.

"Playing cornerback helped out a lot," he continued. "I played the nickel (position) in the spring and the coaches thought I did a great job with it. I'm looking forward to still playing it."

Chances are great that Motta will be alongside him.

"We have athletic ability all the way across the board," he reiterated. "Regular (base defense) or nickel, we can take care of it. The main point would be that we have that understanding of what the person next to us is doing, and that allows us to play a little more freely because we know that (someone) is going to be helping behind me or next to me.

"Coach Martin does a great job of going over stuff in the meeting room so everyone has a feel of what the (corners and safeties) will be doing," he said of the ability to play both free and strong safety.

Motta's comfort level is a credit to both Martin and the program's leader.

"The second year under coach Kelly with the same staff and the same defense makes it a lot more comfortable," he admitted, later adding, "The staff doesn't change (approach) on a daily basis. You come out and get the same thing. When that happens, you become accustomed what to expect and that's helped me out a lot." Top Stories