At the start of spring practice, the group became a lot deeper and more seasoned with the return of Darrin Walls to Notre Dame. After taking a leave of absence last fall and traveling home for personal reasons, the junior is back on campus and is picking up right where he left off. Two seasons ago, as a sophomore, Walls was the premier shutdown corner for the Irish, as opposing quarterbacks tended to avoid throwing the ball his way.
"I could start with the obvious one being Darrin Walls being in such good shape," coach Charlie Weis said of the cornerback's conditioning upon his arrival on campus this spring. "Now that's not a surprise, but it was more of a hope that he would look that good coming back like he hadn't missed a beat."
Walls' arrival only means that the competition at cornerback will be even more intense with last year's starters, Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton already in place. However, because of Walls' absence, Weis felt it necessary to give last year's contributors the nod at the starting cornerback positions.
"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."
Blanton has also seen the level of competition become healthier with Walls' arrival to the program.
"Well, we were always competing before he got here, that's what we always do," Blanton said. "And now that he's come in, he's just competing so we've already been competing and he's just competing along with us."
At safety, Notre Dame fans will certainly be glad to see a familiar face at strong safety, as Kyle McCarthy has been approved for a fifth-year by the university. The senior led all Irish defenders with 110 tackles last season, 64 of which were solo takedowns. Playing opposite McCarthy will be Harrison Smith, who is returning to his natural position after playing as the Sam linebacker last year.
After red-shirting his freshman year, Smith racked up 57 total tackles, good enough for fourth on the squad, and picked up a team-high 3.5 sacks. The Irish coaching staff felt that the sophomore was too talented to keep on the bench and moved him to linebacker with McCarthy and David Bruton manning the safety positions. Now, Smith will employ his range and athleticism as a free safety, where he can roam and make plays.
CHARTING DEPTH: The defensive backfield is loaded with players who have had significant experience, and some who have yet to prove anything at the collegiate level. Besides Walls, Blanton and McNeil, the next contributor seems to be Sergio Brown who held the role of the nickelback last season. Although he was used primarily in blitzing situations, Brown was a disturbance in opposing backfields, deflecting six passes at the line of scrimmage.
One of the most interesting developments this spring for the secondary has been the ability to interchange personnel among different packages. As opposed to the pressure-oriented scheme incorporating Brown as the nickelback, defensive backs coach Corwin Brown has the option to put out a unit focused around pass defense using Walls, Blanton and McNeil on the field at the same time.
"You're liable to see anything," Brown said. "We've got a lot of different packages, so we can move guys around and implement different guys."
In addition, Jamoris Slaughter can provide some depth at the cornerback spot if any of the other players need some rest or in case of injury. Slaughter did not see the field his freshman season, and as a result, the staff decided to use a red-shirt year on the freshman.
At safety, Sergio Brown can spell McCarthy for some plays, but it may be another McCarthy who could see the field. Kyle's younger brother, Dan, who is also from Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, also red-shirted last season and has been working on learning the mental aspect of being a collegiate safety.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: By far, the most popular name being thrown around by the coaching staff throughout the spring has been Slaughter's. After sitting out last season, the early reports are that the freshman could potentially be one of the most talented corners of the entire unit.
"He's coming along well," coach Brown said of Slaughter. "He's coming along well. When we get to the fall, that's something we'll have to determine after the spring," he said of the possibility of the freshman receiving some playing time next season. "Still, there's a long way to go until we play Nevada, so we've got a couple of more practices, evaluations to do, fall camp and then we have evaluations after that, but he's coming along. … He's got starting corner ability. He can be a starting corner and be a good one in college football. He's tough and he's smart, so he could play safety too."
Although he garnered significant minutes last season, Smith's move to his natural position could see an increase in his production from last year's numbers. The sophomore boasts the kind of athleticism needed to make the move between positions and so far this spring Smith has shown that he is comfortable roaming in the secondary. If he can pick up the terminology and plays with ease, Smith could have a huge year for the Irish in 2009.
INJURIES, ETC.: The secondary for the most part has remained very healthy throughout the spring. Freshman early enrollee E.J. Banks is the only player that the Irish staff put on the list in the beginning of spring practice with the limited tag. For the most part, Banks has been going through individual drills, but is yet to don full pads. In addition, Walls has not had any setbacks since returning to Notre Dame, and is in optimal shape.