Questions to be Answered: Part II

In the second part of our series on spring practice we'll take a look at another question the Irish coaching staff will likely try to answer. Can the Irish solve their problems in the secondary? Who might step up this spring?

As we mentioned in yesterday's article, not all the problems the Irish had on defense revolved around the secondary. Notre Dame didn't rush the passer well, and they didn't always cover well in the passing game at linebacker, either.

But it was clearly obvious to many that there were many blown assignments in the secondary throughout the year.

Our good friend Busco21 made a very important point in his article on Tuesday on secondary play. It's hard to know which guy is actually at fault for a blown assignment unless you know which coverage Notre Dame's secondary was in at the time of the blown assignment, especially while watching the game on TV. Also, as Busco 21 pointed out, there are "combination coverages," which can complicate matters as well when trying to find the culprit as a regular fan.

However, I don't think it's a stretch to say everyone in the secondary, at one point or another, probably was guilty of a blown coverage a time or two last season.

"Will the safeties ever stop biting on the run?"

Many Irish fans pointed to the safety play as being a big part of the problem. While that could be true, I don't see Tom Zbikowski or Chinedum Ndukwe sitting on the bench in 2006 unless someone really steps up their play.

Why would I say this? I'm not sure either ever came off the field last season. This tells me nobody was pushing either player for playing time.

Zbikowski probably did peek into the backfield a few times when he shouldn't, and got victimized because of it, but he's also your best playmaker on defense. Zbikowski had a team-high five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. A third return was called back in the Fiesta bowl. He did make a few mistakes, but he's a playmaker and one of the few ND has on defense.

Ndukwe also got caught with his hands in the cookie jar a few times, but he also was also involved in seven turnovers throughout the year, caught two interceptions, and came up big in some key situations as well. He's a solid player that will improve in 2006.

Watching free safety David Bruton run the field on kickoff or punt coverage, one sees a very talented athlete, but can he play free safety? This we don't know, but he clearly has the physical tools. Could he push Ndukwe for a starting spot? This might be a battle to watch this spring.

After Bruton, the Irish have freshmen Kyle McCarthy and Ray Herring back at safety. Herring had the most hype but fell to injury early last season. It's possible we might see Jake Carney back for another season, but I wouldn't count on it.

At this point I'd think Bruton would be the most likely to make some noise this spring, but I wouldn't count out Herring as he played at a very high level of high school football in Florida.

"Will we see new blood at corner?"

Quietly Mike Richardson had a fine year at corner. Richardson finished fourth on the team in tackles (and is a great tackler by the way), picked off three passes and broke up seven passes on the season. Now don't you feel bad for picking on Mike last year? You know who you are…

The problem is, in an ideal situation, Mike Richardson is probably an outstanding free safety, but the lack of true and field-ready corners on Notre Dame's roster prompts Richardson into a boundary corner spot. And what an admirable job he's done considering. Richardson is my pick for most improved player in 2005, and I think he'll only get better in 2006.

Junior Ambrose Wooden had more ups than downs at corner in his first year of starting—a good sign considering it was his first season starting. Wooden plays the more difficult field corner position for Notre Dame. He's got more space to cover, but also has a little more athletic ability than Richardson.

Yes, Wooden gave up some big plays in 2006, but he also made some very big plays as well for the Irish. Who can forget his momentum-changing pick against Michigan? We've seen what secondary coach Bill Lewis can do for a guy like Richardson, another year for Wooden under his tutelage should produce impressive results.

"What about Nickel and Dime?"

Ah yes, two positions that could be very key for Notre Dame next season. Can they find a nickel and dime package they'll be happy with?

I sure hope so, because they might have to play a lot of it as I expect everyone, maybe even Navy, to try to hit the Irish will big plays in the passing game until Notre Dame shows they can stop the bleeding.

Leo Ferrine was the first guy off the bench in 2005 in the secondary. He's a gamer, plays with confidence, recorded his first pick of his career against Syracuse, and seemed to have an idea of what to do on the field. But like Richardson, he might be an ideal free safety more than a true lock-down corner prospect. But that's not a bad thing if you're a nickel back or maybe even a dime. Ferrine has the best chance to make a name for himself this spring, but can he hold off the charge of two talented freshmen next fall?

Terrail Lambert and LaBrose Hedgemon are the only other two true scholarship players left on the roster at corner. Lambert played some minutes this past season but hasn't solidified a spot yet in the lineup. Lambert has all the speed necessary to play the position. Can he develop as a solid nickel or dime?

Hedgemon returned to the team after a suspension this past fall and saw his first action of his career. So far he hasn't shown he'll be in the mix, but that could change this spring.

However, two highly-touted corner prospects report during the summer in Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls (letter of intent pending). Both have good size and speed and could make a real push for playing time in 2006. If nothing else they should add some healthy competition in the fall. We should get a fairly good idea just how talented each player is this fall as the staff will be looking for at least a nickel or dime this fall, and both will likely be given a good shot at these positions. If either can challenge for the spot, expect big things from them in the future.

Final Thoughts:

I don't think there's any question the secondary will improve this spring and fall, but the question will be how much? They'll need to improve quite a bit if they want to challenge for a National Championship next season.

I believe you'll see better play out of the starters in the secondary, but I'd be worried if we didn't see the nickel and dime package early next season. If you don't see a fifth and sixth defensive back in the game early next season, you'll likely know they haven't solved their problems in the secondary yet. Not even the best defenses can play a base 4-3 most of the game like the Irish tried to do many times in 2005. Top Stories