To the disappointment of Irish faithful across the nation last season, Darrin Walls decided to take a leave of absence from the football program and the university. For the junior cornerback, the respite provided a welcome interlude from the stresses of college life.
"Personal reasons," was all the corner wanted to cite as his reasons for missing the fall semester.
For Walls, the time away from school and football provided an opportunity to reflect on his situation. The process, however, had its positives and its rough patches.
"I mean, it was pretty tough," Walls said of watching Notre Dame from afar. "Watching them go through the season, and winning games and watching how much fun they had. It was pretty tough watching them on TV, but I kind of embraced it. I enjoyed watching it from afar just the whole season. Coming up and watching them play, that was one of the big things that helped me get through this whole thing and watching them play."
During Walls' time off, he did his best to keep in touch with his teammates, specifically Raeshon McNeil, who provided his fellow defensive back with some much needed guidance and support throughout the entire ordeal. In these conversations, Walls attempted to stay in touch with his friends, while staying involved in daily football terminology, even going as far as creating scouting reports for future opponents.
"I usually talked to Raeshon about twice a week, or so," Walls said. "Every now and then, I would talk to Terrail [Lambert] and [David] Bruton also, throughout the week and the game planning to see what they were going against. Communication was there a lot."
Despite his time off and amid rumors that he might not re-enroll in the spring, Walls is certainly glad to be back.
"It feels good," he said. "It's great to be out there with all my teammates. I'm just ready for this season to start."
Coming back to the swing of spring practice has taken a certain amount of adapting and transition from his semester off. However, his first two years with the program has eased his assimilation back into the Irish program. Also thanks in part to his family, they have helped him through the ups and downs of the process.
"It's a lot different," Walls said of standing on the sidelines. "When I was at home, I spent a lot of time with my family, so that whole aspect is a lot different than from now. But being back with my teammates, and going back to regular classes, it feels pretty good."
Although Walls' departure may have hurt the Irish last season, his time away in contemplation has aided him in a process that has allowed him to mature and grow as a person. Either way, the junior still has two years of eligibility headed into the 2009 campaign and feels that his semester break will eventually translate into positives on Saturdays as well.
"As a person, I think I've grown a lot," Walls said. "I think that's what's going to make me a better football player. I found out and learned about myself more than ever before, and this whole process has been a positive one."
To ensure that he would remain focused on the tasks in front of him, Walls was taking academic courses while at his home in Pittsburgh, Penn., making the process of re-enrollment a lot easier. Also, Walls is returning in optimal physical shape, thanks to a workout routine that has kept him in line.
"With school, it wasn't too hard," he said. "I took classes while I was home and I stayed on academic track. I mean, I worked out and I had a job, so physically it wasn't a big issue. It really wasn't much of a transition now, it's just finding the defense and getting back out on the field."
Now that Walls is back in the fold in the defensive backfield, there is a budding competition that will be manifested this spring in terms of playing time at the cornerback position. Due to his absence last semester, coach Charlie Weis feels that it is only fair to have Walls come in as the nickelback into spring practice, giving last season's starters, McNeil and Robert Blanton, the starting nods.
"Well, going into start it off with Darrin first coming back," Weis said. "Obviously, it's only right with R.J. [Robert Blanton] and Raeshon to be out there first. But I think that that rotation will get going in a hurry. Plus we're really high on Jamoris Slaughter. That is another guy who gets into the mix. So we've got that other guy who will be back here in the summertime, so, you get another guy back in the mix. Now all of a sudden that position becomes the position of strength, knock on wood, as long as everyone stays relatively healthy."
Even though Walls would like to make a seamless transition back into university life, he isn't denying that his time away from the program has altered his perspective on playing football for the Irish.
"It changes a lot," he said. "Like I said before, I learned so much about myself, about this team and me being away, I grasped the fact that being a Notre Dame football player with school, with football, and with my teammates that I've built better relationships with."
In his eyes, there is only one thing Walls can do at this point — prove himself.
"I mean it always means a lot," he reflected on the aura of being a Notre Dame football player. "But now, I just feel like I have to come out there and prove myself, since I've been gone for a whole semester. I mean, academically I know it's there. I feel like I know what I can do, I just have to prove myself."