Bruton's role in his first two years at Notre Dame has been limited to special teams play, an area where the junior has excelled, and reserve safety behind Chinedum Ndukwe. As a sophomore, the season didn't start out on the right foot when Weis left Bruton off the travel list to Atlanta for the opener at Georgia Tech. Bruton stepped up his performance in practice and appeared in the final 12 games of the season, totaling 18 tackles. Eleven of those came on special teams. With Ndukwe now gone, the junior safety is ready to make his presence known in the defensive backfield.
"This camp seems to be a lot more fun and a lot more relaxed," Bruton said on Saturday. "In my freshman year, I had a chance to start but wasn't able to cope with the game plan. As a sophomore, it was more of the same thing. My junior year, I've grown as a football player and an individual to be able to take the stress and cope with everything going on around me."
Bruton is on the last line of defense in guarding against the big plays. The Irish defense has been victimized over and over again the past two years by the big play. Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown said back in the spring that this would be a top priority for the upcoming season. Bruton and fellow safety Tommy Zbikowski will share a lot of that responsibility in 2007 and the junior knows the importance of limited the big plays.
"The main thing is to cover the eight and nine routes, the deep routes," Bruton said. "We can't allow anything over 20 yards as a pass or 10 yards as a run. We have to prevent that and it's been a big problem. We have to address it in the passing game and the running game. We have to make a concentrated effort to focus on those main things."
Bruton is part of a stacked defensive backfield. Weis has said a couple of times in training camp that this is the most depth Notre Dame has had in the secondary since he's arrived. In addition to six cornerbacks possibly seeing action in the opener against Georgia Tech, Kyle McCarthy, Ray Herring, Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines give the Irish options after Bruton and Zbikowski at the two safety spots.
"Everybody is working hard," Bruton said. "Everybody is making plays. Everybody sees there is an opportunity and people are trying to seize it. In turn, it's making every better and try harder and get their reads faster."
***One of the more versatile players on the defense is Scott Smith. The junior is listed on the depth chart at outside linebacker but has been working with the inside group as of late. The Notre Dame coaching staff is big on position flexibility and Smith fits this bill. The Highland Park, IL native could see time at either position in the new 3-4 personnel defense.
Smith hasn't seen a lot of quality action in his first two years at Notre Dame. As a freshman, Smith appeared in eight games, mostly on special teams. The biggest contribution came in the 17-10 win at Michigan when the Highland Park, IL native tackled Steve Breaston on a reverse play. But as a sophomore, Smith did not see the field. Now, with the switch in defensive alignments, the junior appears to be one of the bigger benefactors.
"Scott has worked on his athleticism," linebackers/special teams coach Brian Polian said. "He's always been a big, smart kid. He's worked on all the things in our strength and conditioning program. It's not just bulk. It's quick twitch movement and athleticism. Scott is no different than anyone else on our defense in working hard in the off-season."
***Polian on freshmen inside linebackers Steve Paskorz and Aaron Nagel: "Paskorz is a strong kid. Physically, he's not afraid at all. As a freshman, when you come in, the game is faster for both of them in the first week. That's to be expected for both of them. Here's the positives: neither one has been intimidated by it and neither one has depressed about it moving too fast at the beginning. They've hung in there and in the last week, we've begun to see significant progress with both freshmen. They are starting to see it and react faster. Neither one has been scared of the physicality of the position."