Cornerback Darrin Walls knows the feeling. A solid performance against Michigan State was followed by a not-so-solid outing the following week vs. Purdue. The freshman Walls is trying to maintain an emotional equilibrium.
"As a corner, you try to keep your confidence," Walls said on Wednesday. "There are going to be good plays and bad plays. You have to keep everything level. You can't have too many emotional highs or lows. You have to stay focused."
Walls plays a position that is noticeable. Cornerbacks are obvious targets for praise and displeasure because usually it's one-on-one. The cornerback is trying to make a play on the ball in order to prevent the wide receiver from making him pay. When it gets knocked away, fans high five. When the ball is completed, grumbling can be heard.
It's part of the job description for corner and the island they constantly live on during game days. Walls, in particular, has seen the most action of any freshmen defensive player on the team, registering four tackles and one pass breakup. He's seen maybe more time than originally thought because the guy in front of him on the depth chart, Ambrose Wooden, got nicked up in the Michigan contest and hasn't played since. It's been an adjustment period from high school, where he was a four-star stud coming out of Pittsburgh, PA, to the college game.
"On the field has been pretty tough," Walls said. "The speed of the game is a lot different than camp. In camp, we go hard and go hard. Once you get on that field, it's a lot different. The receivers are different and the game plans change. It's a lot of work but I'm taking it day-by-day to get better.
"You come out of high school and people call you a shut down corner. I really don't believe in a shut down corner in college. You're going against high school receivers then and now you're going against college receivers. It's a lot of pressure. I try to handle it and do what I do."
Walls didn't have much time to learn. He got some playing time right off the bat in the opener at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have an all-everything receiver by the name of Calvin Johnson, a 6-5, 235-pound beast who can beat you with size and speed. And there it was: Walls and his 6-1 frame on Johnson one-on-one and outweighed by 60 pounds. Georgia Tech did what anybody would do and went deep. The pass was good for 43 yards and led to a Yellow Jacket field goal. Live and learn for the young freshman.
"Calvin is a real good receiver," Walls said. "He's big, strong and fast. That was my first real big challenge. It was a big one my first time."
The tide would swing a few games later against Michigan State. With Wooden not playing because of an injury, Walls was inserted into the starting lineup. The freshman performed admirably in the Spartans contest, matched up most of the night versus 6-6 Matt Trannon. Those who watched the game barely even noticed Walls because Trannon was silent all night. Head coach Charlie Weis said when that happens, a cornerback is doing their job.
"My assignment was just to play my position and cover anyone who comes to my side," Walls said about the Spartan game. "In Georgia Tech, I played whoever came to my side. I play my techniques and that was it. I played it the best I can."
Purdue followed Walls's stellar outing. The game plan, according to Weis, was to shut down the Boilermakers's Dorien Bryant and Dustin Keller. This left Purdue's Selwyn Lymon one-on-one all day against the Irish secondary. Walls was in coverage for the biggest play of the day, an 88-yard touchdown by Lymon right before half where Walls was beat deep and then safety Tommy Zbikowski missed a tackle.
"I should have been inside of him on that play once he caught the ball," Walls said. "I was in the wrong technique. He got inside and I should have made the tackle."
The pendulum might swing a few more times for Walls this season. The freshman is learning on the fly. What's for sure is the athletic ability and skills he possesses. Weis pointed out his ball skills earlier this week and it's a big reason Walls is back deep on the kickoff return unit. It's a credit to him that he's got some valuable playing time so early in his Notre Dame playing career.
"Coming here, I told myself I'm going to work hard and see what happens," Walls said. "I guess I worked hard enough to get on the field. It was expected from the coaching staff and myself. I'm one to strive myself to play. So I'm going to do that.
"Coach (Bill) Lewis is a tough coach. So is Coach (Rick) Minter. They are always getting on me. But I'm always getting on myself and trying to stay on top of my game."
It's a safe bet that Walls will see the field a lot more in the final six games. He said on Wednesday that he was working on the punt return unit, possibly as a backup to Zbikowski in case anything happens to the senior captain. At times, it'll be a tough learning experience for Walls but his ability to see action on the field should give him plenty of opportunities to make plays.
"I'm not sure how to analyze myself," Walls said of his progress so far. "Obviously, I've gotten better but I don't know where I should be as of now. I'm working hard every day and getting better. I feel like it's going smoothly."