Team Preview: Defensive Backs

Defensive back play should be the strength of the Notre Dame defense in 2008. The Irish have lost a couple of starters from the 2007 season, but this unit has plenty of talent to overcome the departures. This should be one of the best Irish defensive backfields in recent memory.

The Irish do lose two key players from 2007 in Tom Zbikowski and Darrin Walls. Zbikowski moved onto the NFL, and Walls is not enrolled this semester. Defensive backs coach Corwin Brown has plenty of solid options to replace both players, but the loss of Walls will hurt the Irish in the depth department.

The Knowns

It's been a very long time since Notre Dame has had a defensive back selected in the first round of the NFL draft. That could very well change in early 2009 as safety David Bruton waits to hear his name called next April. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Bruton is a freakish athlete with sub 4.4 speed. More importantly, he's productive. Bruton led the team last year with three interceptions and finished third on the team in tackles with 85. The Miamisburg, Ohio native is vital to the Irish defense because he can cover so much ground.

With Bruton playing centerfield for the Irish defending the pass, Notre Dame can be much more aggressive up front with blitzes as Bruton has the speed and range to chase down most big plays before the reach the end zone. Having a player with Bruton's speed and instincts is a luxury most teams don't enjoy. Enjoy it Irish fans, because it may be a long time before you see another as talented as Bruton on the field. I expect a very big year for the senior safety, and hopefully we'll hear his named called early next April.

Fifth-year senior Terrail Lambert enters the season as a two-year starter for the Irish. Not many teams have corners who end up starting three years. Lambert certainly has plenty of experience. He also has plenty of speed and size. The Oxnard, Calif. native has been through the wars and is battle-tested. While he hasn't been spectacular thus far in his career, he has been very solid and has improved his play as time has gone on. Having Lambert back is definitely a luxury. He should provide steady play at a position the Irish have struggled in the past.

I'm listing Kyle McCarthy as a known because I really think he'll end up starting and holding that spot all season. Why? Nobody came close to challenging him all spring. What I like best about McCarthy is he's a sure tackler, and he seems to always be in the right position. He's not as athletic as Bruton, or even Tom Zbikowski, the player he'll replace, but he's very solid fundamentally. More importantly, the Irish need a player who can attack the line of scrimmage and be very productive in the run game. That's what we should see in McCarthy this season.

The Unknowns

Unlike other "unknowns" in this series, some of the players listed here have experience and should develop into key players for the Irish this season. This group should also provide some quality depth during the season. Many of these players will be counted on as you see so many offenses using three, four and five receiver sets throughout the year.

Raeshon McNeil is in great shape to land the starting spot opposite Lambert at corner. I know some won't believe this, but I heard from a very good source that McNeil was pushing very hard for a starting spot and very likely could have landed a starting spot. The good news is Notre Dame has a quality option for the suspended Walls. The bad news is the Irish could have had an outstanding option for the nickel back if Walls were available. They still might have that option with others on the roster, but had Walls been available, this could've been an outstanding secondary. The main point, however, is that McNeil really had an outstanding spring and was set to see a lot of playing time.

Senior Ray Herring is playing in his final season for the Irish. There has been a lot of positive buzz about Herring the past few years, but he has yet to see a great deal of playing time. Injuries have been the main problem for Herring, and he sat out the final eight games of last year due to another injury. When healthy, Herring can be a solid option for depth behind starter Kyle McCarthy at strong safety. If healthy, we expect to see Herring play a good amount, especially on special teams.

Junior Sergio Brown reminds me a lot of David Bruton when Bruton was learning his position at free safety. Brown will back up Bruton, and he's almost as athletic as the senior safety. The 6-foo-2, 200-pound Brown is fast, agile and can cover a lot of ground in a hurry. Unfortunately, he'll have a hard time beating out Bruton this fall, and will only have one year of eligibility after this season. Brown will play a lot on special teams, and hopefully he'll learn a great deal and be ready to step in for Bruton next season.

Like Brown, junior Jashaad Gaines also has a lot of athletic ability. Also like Brown, he's a junior with only one year of eligibility left. He also plays Sergio's position. In the end, one of these two will likely be disappointed as only one can replace Bruton. Plus, both will have to contend with sophomore Harrison Smith if Smith remains at safety in the future.

Another player who might have a hard time seeing the field this fall is Leonard Gordon. Gordon has played both corner and safety for the Irish but hasn't seen much action at either spot. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior would have two more years of eligibility after this season, but thus far hasn't been able to climb into the two-deep at either position. The time is likely now for Gordon or he'll probably get passed by younger players this fall.

Sophomore Gary Gray found a golden opportunity with the Walls suspension. Most teams like to use their third cornerback in the nickel position, and Gray will move up to the third corner spot heading into fall camp. He'll likely compete with a couple of freshmen for the position, but he's had a full year head start on the talented freshmen. Gray was injured much of fall last year, but he did participate fully this spring and at the tail end of the 2007 season. The good news is Gray will have three years of eligibility after this season.

Sophomore Harrison Smith could also factor into play at the safety position. As mentioned previously, we expect Smith to see a lot of action at weakside linebacker this fall, but he could also play some safety as well. Regardless, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Smith clearly has a lot of potential…..too much potential to keep off the field.

The Freshmen

Freshman cornerback Robert Blanton probably has the best chance to see the field this season. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound North Carolina native will likely compete with Gray for that third cornerback position. He's talented enough, and he's physical enough to give Gray a good fight for the spot. How quickly he can learn the defense will likely be a big factor in how much he plays in 2008.

Tucker, Ga. native Jamoris Slaughter is another freshmen who will be going through his first fall camp for the Irish. Slaughter injured a knee in an all-star game this past January and that injury likely has limited his ability to lift to prepare for the season. I'm going to guess we won't see much of Slaughter on the field this year as the Irish won't likely need him, and he could use a year to fully recover from the knee injury. However, he's a tough kid with a lot of potential. He could end up at either corner or safety for ND in the future.

Youngstown, Ohio native Dan McCarthy will also report this week for his first season with the Irish. Like his brother Kyle, Dan is a very physical football player, and is probably blessed with even more athletic ability than Kyle. Dan has a wealth of potential, but a neck injury suffered last year could limit him this fall and possibly beyond. Irish fans have to hope McCarthy's neck injury is behind him because he has vast potential and could become an outstanding safety for the Irish in the future.

The Prediction

The Irish are in great shape at defensive back. At this point the third corner position is probably the only real battle for this fall. Normally teams will use an athletic safety for the dime position, or sixth defensive back, but another corner could end up being the dime. In any event, the ND coaching staff has plenty of talent to choose from, and the Irish secondary looks to be in great shape for future years to come.


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