Bigger, Faster, Stronger

The Notre Dame defense was set to take the practice field for the first time this week against the show team. Darrin Walls heard the words out of first-year defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's mouth that every player fighting for a starting position is waiting to hear. "Walls, get in there with the first group." The sophomore cornerback cracked a quick smile as he trotted onto the field.

That's when Walls knew he accomplished his first goal of the 2007 season.

A bigger, stronger, more physical and knowledgeable Walls did enough this training camp to earn his first career starting nod opposite senior Terrail Lambert for Saturday's season opener against Georgia Tech. Walls, who felt lingering effects all last season from shoulder surgery prior to his freshman year, edged out fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden on the depth chart.

"I kind of expect to be a starter," the 6-foot, 180-pound Walls said after practice on Wednesday. "Everyone comes here to play, so it wasn't a big surprise to me."

Walls expected to play as a true freshman as well, and he did, appearing in eight games including the season opener at Georgia Tech. There was no denying the instincts and speed the U.S. Army All-American brought with him to campus, and he was able to crack the rotation.

Life was rosy for a couple weeks.

In his first game, Walls was an integral part in limiting All-American receiver Calvin Johnson to just two second half receptions in Notre Dame's come from behind 14-10 victory. But as the season went on, Walls couldn't maintain a physical presence on the field, and saw his playing time dwindle. He saw action in eight of 13 games, making just four tackles.

Following his final prep season at Woodland Hills High, the Pittsburgh, Pa. product had surgery on his left shoulder to repair torn ligaments. Walls had the same procedure done after his sophomore year. He arrived at Notre Dame in the summer in rehab mode, instead of hitting the weights with Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Ruben Mendoza and his staff. Unable to play up to the physical toll of the college game, Walls was mainly forced to take mental reps from the sidelines with occasional spot duty.

Walls was fed up with that. This past off-season, Walls hit all his strength goals, and even said he's gotten faster. That all translates to him running onto the field with the first unit come Saturday.

"He's worked from the time we got started in January up until right through training camp," defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said of Walls in the weight room. "We continued to lift three days a week during training camp and he's continued to get stronger physically. I think along with that, young players get stronger mentally. I think physical toughness and mental toughness have to go together. I think he understands the game much better than he did. He understands the speed of the game, he understands the competitive nature of the game."

"The most important thing, it was coach Mendoza, being in his program the whole year got me back on track with my strength," Walls explained. "But it was being more aggressive at the line of scrimmage, that's where the strength came into play."

It was frustrating for Walls last season, for him not be able to do the things physically he wanted to do on the football field. Lack of playing time was even more frustrating. Right after the 41-14 loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, Walls was in the weight room pushing out every rep with a starting spot on his mind.

During spring football and fall training camp, Walls played consistently on the field according to Brown. Walls also took it upon himself to get a better understanding of what the guys around him on defense are doing on every single play, instead of just knowing his own assignment.

Walls said that his 40-yard dash time dropped during the summer, but he couldn't remember where his time was at. He does notice being much stronger while out on the field playing.

"The biggest thing I'd have to say is being more aggressive at the line of scrimmage, being more physical," Walls said of where he's grown the most. "With the style of defense we play, it calls for that."

In his short time on campus, Brown has seen quite an improvement in Walls.

"He's developed fairly well," Brown said. "He's had a relatively good camp. He'll be tested this week. We'll find out exactly where he is Saturday."

Starting with that first play.


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