We'll never know if Darrin Walls would have given a huge cushion to Spartans WR Mark Dell on a key 3rd and 10 conversion midway through the final quarter; or if he'd have afforded the same luxury to UNC receiver Brooks Foster on the Tar Heel's crucial 3rd-down pass at the 3:30 mark. And you can't blame Irish fans for wondering if Walls would have been the man assigned to Pittsburgh WR Jonathan Baldwin on the 4th down jump ball that sent the Panthers and Irish to overtime (and eventual defeat); or if he'd have broken up one of the three 3rd-down conversions that led to scores against the supposed dead-men-walking Orange.
Walls missed the '08 Irish season due to personal reasons, and the 6-6 campaign would likely have featured a few more bright spots with a cornerback of Walls' caliber on the roster. In Spring Practice ‘09 the senior was welcomed back to the squad with open arms … and thrust into a depth chart dogfight for his former starting spot.
Sophomore Robert Blanton appears to be the position's biggest playmaker while Walls' classmate (and good friend) Raeshon McNeil earned his stripes last season, leading the Irish in passes defended and contributing consistently sound coverage in at least 10 of 13 contests last year.
In the halcyon days of the late 80s and early 90s, those of us in South Bend were promised that "(Name a running back, tight end, or linebacker) could start for 90 percent of the teams in the country, but he can't get off the bench, here." Looking back at the rosters and the NFL careers of many of those talents, it appears the bold proclamations were accurate. But when was the last season in which anyone uttered that same phrase regarding an Irish cornerback?
Over the last 20 years, Notre Dame's best defenses have generally boasted exactly two top tier CBs, such as Todd Lyght and Stan Smagala in '88, ‘89; Tom Carter and Greg Lane in '92; Bobby Taylor – who moved back to CB from FS – and Lane in '93; and Shane Walton and Vontez Duff in ‘02. But it's a rare occasion that an Irish staff has recruited and developed enough of its assets to build true depth at the position – players that might not be interchangeable, but can nonetheless be counted upon to produce at a high level vs. top opposing receivers each week. (The Irish secondary could conceivably have four CBs worthy of the starter's nod if redshirt sophomore Gary Gray improves as reasonably expected.)
That's the situation the squad is blessed with entering fall camp, and the player that can elevate the defensive backfield from team, to national strength, is the returning senior with a chance to make amends for lost time.
Walls' Season OutlookWalls is, in my estimation, the team's best cornerback at this stage of the trio's collective careers. He was appreciably better vs. the run in '07 than as an all-cover/no-tackle freshman CB who eventually won, and lost, a starting role in '06. As a sophomore Walls was the key defender for a secondary that held opponents to a decade-low 5.6 yards per pass attempt, and paced the team with nine pass breakups.
I doubt the senior will lead the team in a single statistical category – after all, college teams have yet to track a metric for "great coverage." If Walls can take the next step in his development and lead what should be a much stronger defensive unit in '09, there won't be many opposing quarterbacks and coordinators looking in his direction for yards via the pass.
Walls' Best Career Moments:
- Penn State (2007): Walls intercepted an Anthony Morelli pass and returned the offering through heavy traffic for a 73-yard touchdown and Notre Dame's first lead of the 2007 season.
- UCLA (2007): Walls broke up a first quarter, 3rd-and-goal pass in the end zone, holding the Bruins to a field goal in Notre Dame's first win of the season.
- Navy (2007): With less than three minutes remaining and the scored knotted at 28, Walls shot up from his cornerback position to hit Navy RB Shun White forcing a fumble and a 10-yard loss. Navy punted to the Irish for the potential game-winning drive but the ND drive stalled at the Navy 24-yard line to end the threat in regulation.
- Air Force (2007): Walls was rarely tested by the Falcons and for good reason: on the two first half plays occurring near him, Walls broke up a sure first down and later forced a fumble (recovered by the Irish) in the 41-24 loss.
Walls' Moments to Forget as an Underclassman:
- Purdue (2006): In his first career start, Walls, who had held his own vs. Georgia Tech's super-human receiver Calvin Johnson just four weeks previous, showed his inexperience as a college CB, allowing a first-quarter go-route for 39 yards to Boilers WR Selwyn Lymon; suffering a coverage mistake on an out-and-up two plays later and a 23-yard gain to John Standeford; and being beaten and subsequently colliding with teammate Tom Zbikowski on an 88-yard catch and run by Lymon with under a minute to play in the first half.
- Purdue (2007): Allowing two third down conversions, including one on 3rd-and-26; and committing a crucial (defensive holding) penalty for a third Boilermakers first down with the Irish trailing just 26-19 near the game's eight-minute mark.