Whose Ball is it?Notre Dame's defensive backs spent the final season of the Charlie Weis era losing winnable battles. Often in good position or running stride-for-stride with an opponent, the bulk of the unit fared poorly at a skill central to the position: Playing the ball in the air.
Touchdown receptions and/or huge, meaningful chunks of yardage were accrued by Michigan, Michigan State, Washington, USC, Boston College, and Stanford vs. Irish regulars Walls, Gray, Blanton, and Smith. But that trio returned for 2010, the first year defensive backs coach Chuck Martin tutored the group with the aid of former NFL defensive back (then outside linebackers coach), Kerry Cooks.
A defense that yielded 17 touchdown tosses in 2009 and returned eight of its top 10 back seven players (LBs and DBs), allowed just nine passing scores in 2010 -- a mere five occurred in the final 10 contests, marking the best run of pass defense success at the program since the sublime 2002 secondary dominated for the season's first 11 contests, surrendering just 6 scores through the air.
In fact over the final 9 regular season contests of Brian Kelly's first season, Irish defensive backs were responsible for just one touchdown pass allowed (Boston College) and the team's linebackers yielded a pair (Stanford on a gorgeous Andrew Luck throw to Coby Fleener and a train wreck of a screen pass/31-yard run by Navy).
The unit entered 2011 as a definitive strength...and then the bullets went live.
A fourth quarter touchdown pass surrendered vs. South Florida put the wild contest out of reach. Three of the four passing scores surrendered the following week by Michigan were balls that could have been knocked down as was a crucial 45-yard jump ball early in the fourth quarter. USC torched the Irish secondary with three touchdown passes. So too did Stanford in the game's decisive first 30 minutes. Florida State came back to win the Champs Sports Bowl at Notre Dame's expense doing the same, this time with a pair of defendable touchdown tosses.
The ball-in-the-air bug began with Gary Gray, continued with Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith, found its way to Lo Wood then Bennett Jackson, and eventually even bit standout Robert Blanton (Stanford and FSU). Notre Dame's cornerbacks and safeties lost far too many individual battles in 2011.
After a season of unmitigated back line success by the same quartet (plus 2010 graduate Darrin Walls), the question remains:
Decision Time"You played the ball, not the man. This is a ball…this is a man."
– Coach Nickerson to defensive back Stefan Djordjevic in the 1983 film, All the Right Moves
Its a quandary that every defensive back, especially cornerback, faces multiple times each week, sometimes each drive: ball or man?
"Do I try to play the ball or do I try to play through the arms?" asked former safeties coach Chuck Martin of a defender's split-second decision on a ball downfield. "If the ball's between (for example) me and Michael Floyd, there's times when the ball might be tilted a little bit my way where it might be a time to bat it down, or it might be a time to get two hands on the ball.
"And there's times where maybe it's a little tilted toward a big receiver and I'm trying to flail at the ball; I didn't lose the battle for the ball, I lost the decision. Because that's the time I had to try to play through the arm, when the only way I'm going to keep someone from catching it is to pull an arm down."
Hours of technique work and practice. Years of tutoring. Limitless experience...and likely innate ability. Each is part of a cornerback defending the ball in the air. And as Irish fans learned through the unfortunate struggles of formerly solid defender Gary Gray last fall - confidence is crucial.
"The one thing we talk to them about is that when the ball is in the air they become the wide receiver," said Cooks. "You can't have any anxiety. You put those guys in as many realistic situations as you can: have them cover all routes, coaching them to feel body presence (of the receivers). The more you rep, the better you'll get."
The Irish will debut three cornerbacks with no starts and limited playing time this fall: Bennett Jackson has the boundary (Gray 2010-11) position locked down. Lo Wood has the lead over Josh Atkinson on the field side (Walls 2010; Blanton 2011). Safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta return as multi-year starters; the former has a knack for separating the ball from the man, sometimes, as was the case last October vs. USC, with no regard for self-preservation - a lost art in today's game.
"That was as violent of a collision as I've seen. It was an absolute car crash in the middle of the field. said Chuck Martin specifically of Slaughter's hit that landed a 15-yard penalty for a blow to the receiver's head. "There was no malicious intent. He did not lead with his head. He probably did hit him above the shoulders and I'm all for protecting kids. It's a rule that -- you can't blame the kid you can't blame the ref -- its just going to happen if you have a kid with the courage he showed on that. "It was just him playing more confidently and more aggressively."
Aggression won't be an issue for Slaughter. It shouldn't be for the three-year starter Motta (Click here for a preview of the senior safety). Jackson made a living in 2010 as an open-field tackler on special teams - his tackling skills shouldn't be an issue even in his first full-time role. And Wood's greatest strength at present is his physical approach to the game.
Can the group, coupled with Atkinson and certain regular Austin Collinsworth (S), defend the ball in the air in 2012? Can they turn the "50/50" ball into an interception, or at least a incomplete passes with regularity?
After a whopping 23 touchdowns allowed through the air last season, that question could be the most pressing the Irish defense will face next fall.