Spring forward. Fall back.

Two words sum up the Notre Dame defensive backfield as spring practice approaches: Position battles. I personally believe no one is safe. Any of the players we watched in '07 and '08 could end up watching more action from the sideline than participating. The two-deep in the secondary is that strong.

FALL BACK TO 2008

The defensive backfield wasn't immune to the schematic changes implemented in '08. After several years of a steady diet of cover 2 and cover 4, the Irish played Cover 3 as their base coverage last fall. To accomplish this, the strong safety would sink into the box, playing an underneath zone, while the other three DB's played deep thirds. In various blitz packages and goal line situations the Irish played man to man, but the large percentage was Cover 3.

No coach is ever satisfied with his unit's production, but Corwin Brown had many reasons to be proud of the Irish defensive backs. While no single statistic is all-telling, Notre Dame's #22 final ranking in Pass Efficiency Defense is a good start. The Irish DB's rarely gave up long passes, while holding opposing QB's to a 54% completion rate. Only a small case of the "dropsies", costing the unit several more interceptions, kept them from a top 20 P.E.D. ranking.

GOOD-BYE TO TWO SENIORS

David Bruton and his freakish athleticism will be playing in the NFL next fall. Bruton made some huge, game changing plays as a senior, not to mention his excellence on special teams. His knack for forcing turnovers in the red zone bailed the Irish out of a few very difficult situations. While he contributed a few of the dropped interceptions that plagued the Irish, he also made a few highlight reel picks. His final stat line as a senior free safety (4 Int's, 6 passes broken up, 10 passes defensed, 2 fumbles forced, 2 recovered, and 97 tackles) illustrates his all-around skills. I don't believe he possessed great natural instincts for the position, but he made up for it with his athleticism and hustle.

Terrail Lambert also finished up his final season in the Irish blue and gold. The fifth year senior used his experience to fight off the talented underclassmen and hold onto one of the two cornerback spots in '08. He failed to register an interception as a senior, but he won't be forgotten. His interception return for a touchdown to seal the comeback victory over Michigan State in '06 will be remembered in Irish lore for years to come.

SPRING FORWARD TO 2009

Well, Coach Brown is in an interesting situation. Four positions, with at least twice that number of DI quality starters. While that is a fantastic situation to be in, it might also lead to the poor guy second guessing himself on his final decisions when he names the starters next fall. I say "poor guy" with complete sarcasm. When a defensive unit has this much competition, it will almost always lead to excellence. While it's difficult, it's much more enjoyable to attempt to keep multiple good players happy with playing time, versus hoping and praying the players on the field will actually cover somebody…anybody.

Defensive backs can never get enough drill work. There are always things to work on, techniques to perfect. This spring should be a cage match. If each repetition isn't the player's best effort, it might be his last at his current position on the depth chart. This spring isn't the time for any DB to lose focus, or slip up off the field. One false step can be life changing when the depth is as strong as it is right now in the Irish secondary.

With the talent Notre Dame has in the secondary, I would predict an emphasis on man to man techniques this spring. If a team is able to cover the opposition's receivers one on one, it allows that many more defenders to pressure the quarterback. While few teams will make a steady diet of man to man coverage and ultimate pressure on a QB, it is a nice arrow to have in a defensive coordinator's quiver. Becoming very good in man to man coverage also allows a DC to put more men in the box to shut down a very strong running attack. The Irish will most likely continue using Cover 3 as their base defense, but the better they become in man to man coverages, the more flexibility the defensive coordinator will have when they struggle to stop the run, or pressure the quarterback.

THE CORNERBACKS

Darrin Walls returns to the Irish secondary after a year away from the game. While Walls has only recorded one interception in his Notre Dame career, it is hard to argue with his elite coverage skills. He is a question mark entering the '09 season, but his talent puts him at or near the top of the cornerback depth chart.

Gary Gray got his feet wet at the cornerback position in '08, picking off two passes and returning them for a combined 65 yards. I liked his attitude and enthusiasm last fall. Gray is a strong competitor for a starting spot, depending on his development this spring and summer.

Jamoris Slaughter didn't see playing time last fall, but the rangy four star freshman has many years left to develop. He's flexible enough to play either corner or safety, which should make him a valuable commodity in the years to come. Notre Dame plays several nickel packages, so a player with his versatility could see the field in a number of positions.

One of my favorite players from the '08 season was Mike Anello. While he didn't make much of an impact at defensive back, nearly every Irish fan enjoyed his contributions on special teams. Players like Anello make all the difference. Not only is he primed to have another great year on the kickoff and punt coverage teams, but his effort should be contagious at the defensive back practices.

Raeshon McNeil used the Pittsburgh game as his coming out party last fall, returning two interceptions 47 yards. This spring will be a huge test for McNeil. He'll be a senior in the fall, so he needs to use his experience and maturity to hold off the other competitors for a starting spot.

The most likely competitor for that spot is Robert Blanton. I like my cornerbacks to be cocky and sure of their abilities. Blanton fits those qualities to a "T". He had a very good freshman campaign in '08, and the sky is the limit for him. A strong spring could catapult Blanton into a starting position he might not relinquish for three more falls.

E.J. Banks enters the equation in a good position. Although a safety prospect, he's penciled in as a cornerback. As the only defensive back in this class, he'll have time to develop behind talented returning players. Whether it's safety or cornerback, Banks will be counted on in the future.

THE SAFETIES

Kyle McCarthy and his 110 tackles return this spring. Kyle is the defense's "sure thing." The coaches know he'll be in the right position, they know he'll make the tackle, they know he'll do his job. As the strong safety, Kyle's job is to sink into the box, defend the run, and cover one of the underneath zones. He did these things very well last fall. The only thing standing between a very good 5th year for Kyle is the development of the next two players at the safety position.

Sergio Brown is a talent. He's a playmaker. As I re-watched each game, I gained more and more appreciation of his ability. Most of the time, he was playing as a nickel back, but he sure excelled at this position. If he continues to improve, he'll be an every down player at the safety position. But if two other players lock down the safety positions, Brown will continue to excel in the nickel slot. With the numerous multiple receiver teams the Irish face each fall, they'll need a very good player at the nickel position. If Notre Dame ends up with Sergio playing the nickel next fall, I'm betting we'll all be very happy.

Harrison Smith will be worked at the safety position this spring. As I mentioned in my linebacker article, Harrison excelled at OLB last fall. He's a football player, and an instinctual playmaker. No one knows how the battles for the two safety positions will play out. If Harrison shows the instincts and abilities to play either of the two safety positions, it will be hard for me to contain my enthusiasm. The Irish have the makings of a scary good defensive backfield.

Leonard Gordon and Dan McCarthy round out the safety position. Gordon saw the field last fall on special teams, while McCarthy spent the year recovering from an injury. I've heard great things about the younger McCarthy, so I'm hopeful he'll develop into the player I've heard he can be.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE DB'S

Only a few short years ago, I would have never believed Notre Dame could have the kind of talent at the defensive back position they have now. The Irish struggled for years to land top notch DB's. Those days are over. That's the result of having top notch coaches like Bill Lewis and Corwin Brown. It isn't impossible to recruit at Notre Dame, it's only a bit more difficult.

Competition should bring out the best in each of these players. I have no idea which combination will take the field as starters next fall. I can't wait for the coaching clinic, and the Blue Gold game. The Notre Dame defense has closed the talent gap between itself and the top teams in the nation. Now it comes down to how that talent is developed.

What though the odds…


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