Vernaglia and Walls Looking For Niche

Arguably the most heralded recruit in Notre Dame's 2004 recruiting class, Anthony Vernaglia hasn't seen more than 27 minutes of playing time in a season since he arrived on campus. Moved from safety to linebacker his sophomore year, Vernaglia's skills didn't fit properly into what the Irish defense was trying to do.

But with the hire of defensive coordinator Corwin Brown in the off-season, things have started to change for the Anaheim Hills, Calif. product.

Frustrated by lack of playing time his first three seasons, Vernaglia saw Brown's hire as a fresh start. He was looking for one anyways, and asked head coach Charlie Weis if he could move to receiver before spring camp. Once he heard rumblings about Brown being hired, and once he got a look at the new 3-4 scheme Brown was bringing in with him, Vernaglia quickly decided defense was indeed where he wanted to stay.

Good thing, because on the initial depth chart handed out at the start of camp on Monday, Vernaglia's name was the first one listed at right outside linebacker.

"There is a whole new scheme, a whole new defensive coordinator," Vernaglia said. He has five career tackles. "A clean slate. You can learn, start from the beginning with everybody. The learning curve is zero for everyone so you get to take off and make new impressions. You get to start fresh, I love it.

"It's great. With previous staff, with the previous defense, once I made an impression it kind of stuck with me for the duration. Now I can kind of shed that and be whoever I want to be to start this next year off. So I've been trying to make that person the best person I can be."

Vernaglia's athleticism has never been the issue. It's been consistency and how he could stand up against the run. With a more aggressive demeanor on the field, and a strenuous off-season of lifting weights, running and eating, the 6-foot-3 Vernaglia said his weight is up to 239 pounds.

"I was forcing food down at every turn, my Dad made sure of it," he said.

As far as the defense goes, Brown's scheme gives Vernaglia more of an opportunity to use his athleticism in the open field, compared to the 4-3 scheme of the last two years where he was asked to play in a tighter space.

"I like the defense a lot," Vernaglia said. "I like playing the outside linebacker, I like playing more so in the space than I had been previously. The spot that I'm playing I love and I think I can do it pretty well.

"I've been just kind of trying to get the system down, try and compete and earn a spot. I haven't been focusing on anything that's been in the past because that's in the past and I'm looking to try and play in September."

Against Georgia Tech on Sept. 1, Vernaglia can begin living up to all the recruiting hype.

***Weis has said a couple times that the secondary this season is deeper than at any other point during his three years at Notre Dame. During his first season, the Irish defense yielded 265 yards per game through the air, ranking 103rd nationally. They were better last season at 203 yards per game, 60th nationally, but obviously not good enough.

Brown, a former standout safety at Michigan before playing eight seasons in the NFL, has been telling his defensive backs to be more physical. With that, Brown has given his players less checks at the line of scrimmage so they can think about just playing.

"When you have a defense that is more simplified, it gives you more time to play instead of thinking and reacting," sophomore cornerback Darrin Walls said. "We have a defense now where we just have a concept and we run with it. We don't have to make too many checks or too many calls. It just gives you more of that ability to react instead of thinking then reacting. A lot of people say we were slow speed wise, but I don't think that's the case. I was thinking too much and then having to react."

As was the case when Walls got beat deep for a touchdown against LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

Explosives as Brown likes to call them, is something that happens normally from a break down in communication. The players have been working on that in the meeting room and on the practice field. According to Walls, the safety will now make a call and everyone will stick with it.

"If a back motioned a certain way or a receiver moved across the field, you would have to make a certain check, where as you can just play any coverage you want and stick with it, and if that works, it's obviously going to work if everyone is playing the same thing," Walls explained of the differences between this season and last. "If you have someone thinking another coverage on the different side of the field it's going to screw everything up."

The 6-foot Walls played in eight games last season, seeing significant action as a freshman. Up to 185 pounds now, he is a critical part of the deep secondary Weis speaks of. He is pushing starting cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden and Terrail Lambert for playing time, while providing a healthy option in nickel and dime packages.

A few times last season, Walls was on the wrong end of a deep ball, and has changed the way he is approaching the game.

"It was just me having that mentality of being more physical," he said. "I'm taking that approach this year. Being more physical, being more aggressive. Strength wise, it wasn't that big of a difference, it was just my approach to it.

"Really just learning the defense, learning what everyone's doing not just the corner position so you know what everyone's working on, what everyone is trying to do. It's that much easier for me to understand what I'm doing and what other people are doing. And be more physical. Being more aggressive."


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