Drastic Improvement

Cornerback Darrin Walls has had some exciting interception returns for scores during Notre Dame practices this fall. Before the Irish traveled to No. 12 Penn State last Saturday, the Irish sophomore cornerback pictured it happening in a game. It took one series for Walls's vision to come to fruition.

Matched up with the Nittany Lions standout receiver Derrick Williams, who was running a go-route, Walls jumped and snagged Anthony Morelli's deep ball out of the air. With many friends and family in attendance, the Pittsburgh product streaked the other way down the sideline, eventually finding his way to pay dirt, giving the Irish an early 7-0 lead, and it's first and only touchdown of the young season.

"It was an exciting play," Walls said. "Basically I was just following my blocks. My teammates made a wall and I followed. It felt pretty good to get it in my home state in front of a lot of my family members."

As a whole, the Irish (0-2) secondary has to be feeling pretty good. Heading into this Saturday's game at Michigan (0-2), Notre Dame ranks 14th in the nation against the pass, allowing only 126 yards per game, and ranks 32nd nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

In the 33-3 season-opening loss to Georgia Tech, one of the lone bright spots was the defensive backfield. The Irish held quarterback Taylor Bennett to 11-of-23 passing for just 121 yards.

"We weren't tested," defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said the following week. Well the Irish were certainly tested by Penn State.

In the 31-10 victory, Morelli struggled throwing the ball, completing 12-of-22 passes for 131 yards and one touchdown. Other than a big play for 51 yards, only four of those completions went for over 10 yards. Morelli couldn't find anything down the field.

"Penn State had some great receivers, and they tested us on some deep balls, and obviously Georgia Tech did too," Walls said. "I mean, we're really focusing on the things that Michigan does, and most of the time they go deep, so we're just focusing on that and we'll see how that plays out. But we're going to get tested all year and we're going against some great receivers this week and we're preparing for that."

"They have a very very solid group of young receivers, and I think that will actually help us because the next couple of games the group of receivers we're going to be facing, are relatively some of the best guys in the nation," senior cornerback Terrail Lambert explained. "This week is no different. It opposes another formidable challenge as a secondary. Every week we're trying to go out and get better because of that."

The Wolverines aren't going to be facing the same Irish secondary they torched for a few big plays last year in South Bend. In No. 11 Michigan's 47-21 whipping of No. 2 Notre Dame, quarterback Chad Henne was good on 13-of-22 passes for 220 yards and three touchdowns. Mario Manningham was outstanding, making four catches for 137 yards and all three touchdowns. Now a junior, Manningham had his first career touchdown against the Irish two years ago.

Over the last three seasons, the Irish secondary has been picked on. Three years ago they ranked 116th nationally against the pass, the following year it was 103rd, and last season it was up to 60th. Though it's only two games into the season, and Notre Dame has yet to line up across from No. 1 USC, this is much better production than the previous three years.

"I think it's just overall experience with a combination of youth," Lambert said. "We kind of have the best of both worlds in that regard, because you have enough old guys to where you have enough experience of guys that have been there before to give insight. Then it's like, with the young players stepping up, I think it gives the whole group as a whole, a liveliness, an eagerness, a new hunger, and something new to work for, a new incentive."

Lambert began to grow into his own last year, his first season as a starter. Walls, a blue-chip recruit earned the other starting job over fifth-year senior Ambrose Wooden, who started some last season, and for the whole 2005 campaign. Wooden and Walls's classmate Raeshon McNeil, are nice options in nickel and dime packages. The safeties have looked athletic as ever in preseason All-American candidate Tom Zbikowski, and first-year starter, junior David Bruton.

The new edition to the whole thing is defensive coordinator Corwin Brown. Coming from the New York Jets, where he was the defensive backs coach, Brown has installed a new 3-4 personnel package the whole defense had to learn quickly. The secondary had the least amount of tweaks, but maybe the most amount of growing. Brown, a former 10-year veteran in the NFL, provides valuable insight. He also added a few tweaks like more combination coverages.

"It's something new we've added to our repertoire to make the defense a little bit more flexible," Lambert said. "That's been one of those things he's been real big on in this defense is being flexible, having all the positions interchangeable."

Brown talks to the defensive backs frequently about attitude and concepts.

"He is just fresh out of the league, so everybody as well as myself is trying to get to that level."

Brown gave the credit to his players.

"I really think it's more the kids' kind of believing in what they can do," he said. "And kind of believing in the things that we ask them to do, and we are pretty demanding. I really don't think it's anything I've done; I think it's more them and that's where it is."

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