The Irish finished ranked 33rd in the country in total defense. While that stat isn't terrible, the Irish finished 13th in the nation last year in total defense. In 2002, the Irish gave up and average of 300 yards per game. In 2003, that number climbed to 340. Does 40 yards really make a difference?
40 yards is not a terrible statistic, but when looking at scoring defense, you will see a huge difference. The Irish finished 9th in the country, allowing just 16.7 points per game in 2002. In 2003, the Irish finished 65th in the country allowing 26.3 points per game—almost a 10-point per game difference.
Another major area of concern is pass efficiency defense. In 2002, the Irish finished ranked 10th in the country. They allowed 12 touchdowns in 13 games. They allowed the opposition to complete 49.34 percent of their passes, and intercepted 21 passes on the year.
In 2003, the Irish finished 76th in the country. They also allowed 16 touchdowns in 12 games. Teams completed 57.57 percent of their passes against the Notre Dame defense, and the Irish only recorded 13 interceptions on the year.
Watching teams like Oklahoma with Derrick Strait, Miami with Sean Taylor, and LSU with Corey Webster playing pass defense was a treat during bowl season. It's also no wonder that LSU, Oklahoma and Miami finished 2,3,4 in pass efficiency defense this season.
The Irish are struggling because they don't defend the pass well. This is not meant as a knock on the current players. They are doing the best job they can. They are talented players, but many haven't had much experience playing defensive back. The Irish have failed in bringing in top defensive backs over the last few seasons—and probably many seasons prior.
The secondary is not the only problem at Notre Dame right now. We do feel that if the Irish could land some quality corners, a lot of the problems we saw in 2003 could be solved. It would also help if the Irish could find some prospects that actually play corner in high school. The Irish must find a way to land quality corners or this problem will continue.
Let's take a look at the past signings at defensive back for the Irish.
The Irish signed Lionel Bolen, Quentin Burrell and Dwight Ellick. Carlos Campbell has switched to playing corner after playing wide receiver in his first couple of years. Lionel Bolen played quarterback in high school. If memory serves me, he had never played defensive back prior to enrolling at Notre Dame. Quentin Burrell has been a find, but wasn't considered a top prospect, neither was Ellick who played primarily running back in high school. The same can be said for Campbell who was considered a better wide receiver prospect. Not one single player in this class was considered a top prospect.
The Irish signed Jake Carney and Mike Richardson. Carney was a 3-star player as a safety. Richardson is listed as a 1-star player who played primarily wide receiver in high school. Neither player was considered a top prospect.
The Irish signed LaBrose Hedgemon (3-star), Tom Zbikowski (4-star), Freddie Parish (4-star) and Isaiah Gardner (4-star). In rankings, this was by far the best class the Irish have signed in a while. But, Zbikowski was a quarterback in high school. He did play some safety in high school, but didn't play corner. Gardner also didn't play much corner, and was primarily a running back in high school.
Taking at look at the last three classes, the Irish have signed four total players that primarily played in the secondary in high school (Parish, Hedgemon, Carney, Burrell). The rest of the secondary consists of two players who played quarterback, two players who played running back and two that played wide receiver in high school.
More importantly, the Irish have signed just two players, (Zbikowski, Gardner), in three years, as corner prospects that had a 4-star ranking or higher. Zbikowski played quarterback and Gardner played running back in high school.
Compare these numbers with the likes of Ohio State and it's alarming. Looking at Ohio State's commitment list, they have one 5-star player committed already. They also have three 3-star players committed. Last year, they signed one 5-star, two 4-star, and two 3-star players. All players mentioned are considered cornerbacks.
Out of the 10 signed by Notre Dame in the last three years, those with the most potential appear to be safeties. Quentin Burrell has proven himself this year. Freddie Parish is said to have all the talent in the world at strong safety. Tom Zbikowski was practicing at free safety.
That is not to say Mike Richardson, Dwight Ellick, LaBrose Hedgemon, Carlos Campbell and Isaiah Gardner don't have talent. We just haven't seen that talent on the field. Gardner and Hedgemon are just freshmen so we shouldn't judge them just yet. One would assume the others haven't reached the level of last year's starting corners or they would be playing. The pass defense last year was lacking so the level of the current secondary is not up to par with the best teams in college football. With that thought in mind, one has to wonder if they do have the talent necessary to play great pass defense. Irish fans have to hope they do.
As of right now, the Irish currently have one commitment from a 2-star player--his main position in high school is running back—not exactly a good start. It's unexplainable how top corners would not be interested in Notre Dame considering their depth chart. Any top corner prospect would have a very good chance to walk in and start their freshman year. I just can't believe this isn't an easier sell than the situation at Ohio State.
There are plenty of top prospects left on the board for the Irish. Terrail Lambert, Leo Ferrine, Darcel McBath, Junior Jabbie, Nate Lyles and Cortney Grixby all look like possible corner prospects. Lambert has played mainly linebacker in high school with some safety. Grixby is a quarterback, but has played some corner. The Irish are talking to him about wide receiver. Jabbie is a running back, and recently said he'd like a chance at offense, some think his best position might be free safety. Notre Dame is recruiting Lyles now as a safety.
Once again I see a trend of finding athletes and trying to make corners out of them. It has worked very successfully in the past with various players including Vontez Duff this season. Still, is it smart to have ¾ of your secondary learning new positions, and in a lot of cases, totally foreign positions?
When you consider the many top prospects the Irish have recently signed at defensive line, I would think this would be an easy sell. Why is it so hard for the Irish to sign top-shelf corner prospects who have actually played cornerback in high school? It really is beyond explanation.
If the Irish are ever going to get back to being a top team in college football they will have to find a way to land solid prospects at cornerback that have played the position before. We love projects, and many good athletes can be turned into quality corners. Still, ¾ of your entire secondary as projects is not a formula for success. Got Corner?