Darrin Walls first broke onto the scene in the second game of the 2007 season, when he made a difficult interception on Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli. Walls sprinted down the sideline and dove into the endzone for a touchdown. At that point, the Irish had a 7-3 lead, and the previous week's 33-3 drubbing at the hands of Georgia Tech was looking like a mirage. Maybe this season wouldn't be so bad after all. Penn State went on to win the game, and Notre Dame struggled to a 3-9 final record.
Walls, personally, was also unhappy with his play last year. Despite racking up 32 tackles and starting 11 of 12 games, the Pittsburgh native thought he could have done a lot better in '07.
"Looking back on the season, there were plays I should have made and plays that could have been made that I didn't make," Walls said. "I'm never satisfied with what I did, but I just have to improve on that. I made some good plays and I also made some very bad plays."
One area where Walls made no plays at all was in the kick return game. After returning five kicks as a freshman in 2006, Walls didn't see any time at the position last season. He said it was because he was a cornerback first, kick returner second.
"I was really trying to focus more on the defensive side of the ball and understanding defense and getting defense down," Walls said.
Currently, the former Army All-American is listed as the second kick returner on Notre Dame's pre-spring depth chart behind sophomore Armando Allen. When asked if Irish fans would be seeing Walls at that position come fall, he responded with a smile and said, "You should be seeing me back there." He emphasized, however, that it was only spring practice, and nothing is set in stone.
"It's not a definite," Walls said of his kick-returning duties. "Coach Weis is trying everyone out there. The depth chart really doesn't mean anything right now. He's just seeing how we handle certain situations and he's putting a lot of people back there to see what they do."
With Walls, though, his defensive position is paramount, and over the winter he said he's been working on fundamentals and techniques, as well as the mental side of the game, to make himself a better cornerback in '08.
"[I've been working on] different techniques that we've played and the different coverages that we've brought," Walls said. "I just want to get the basics down so when we come back in the fall, I have a ground to build on."
That offseason has flowed right into spring ball, which, as many know by now, has taken on a much more physical tone this year. The team is hitting in practice everyday and, recently, had back-to-back full-contact practices on Friday and Saturday. Walls thinks the increased physicality can only help the Irish in the fall.
"I think [head coach Charlie Weis] is trying to test our character, test how we're going to respond to having these tough practices," Walls said. "I think the hitting everyday and going back-to-back practices on Friday and Saturday helps us a lot just to understand how we're going to react in certain situations."
Walls said that for the rest of the spring the goal within the secondary will be to "communicate more" in addition to perfecting the little fundamentals and techniques.
The learning should come a little bit easier to Walls, who has two older defensive backs, David Bruton and Terrail Lambert, who he said are willing to help him every step of the way. Walls said that Bruton has been a leader both on and off the field, arranging meetings for the unit in the off-season. He also said that having Lambert has been invaluable in terms of his development as a cornerback.
"He's helping me work on certain things like the little mistakes that he makes," Walls said. "He tells me what to do and what not to do, so I won't make the mistakes he made. It's a great plus to have those kind of guys around."
Walls also figures to have some new hands-on help from the coaching staff this season. Defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, who played safety in the NFL from 1993-200, has taken on the responsibilities of secondary coach. Walls thinks his coach's real life experience will help him become a better player.
"Coach Brown, he played safety, so he knows what it takes and he really doesn't expect anything out of the ordinary that we couldn't handle," Walls said.
Part of Brown's new style this season is an Irish defensive that hopes to be more aggressive against opponents. Earlier in the spring, Brown said that the defense is "going to be flying around a lot more." Theses are all great news to Walls.
"It's a good thing," Walls said. "If we can get pressure on the quarterback, anything can happen. If guys are flying around and making plays, then we should be a top-notch defense next year."
Walls, personally, hopes to be a major player in that top-notch defense.
"I really haven't set any personal goals, but every defensive back wants to be nationally recognized," he said. "I think that's the goal everyone has. Every defensive back wants to win the Thorpe Award."
The Thorpe Award is given annually to the most outstanding defensive back in the nation. Walls said that he, Bruton, Lambert, and Brown talk about winning the award. But, as Walls put it, "That's all of goals, but only one of us can win it."
The way he is constantly pushing to get himself better, don't be surprised if Walls is that one.
Always Room for Improvement
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