Locked (Down) and Loaded

Our team unit rankings continue with the No. 2 overall position group heading into fall camp: The Irish defensive backs.

Over the next 10 days, Irish Eyes will offer 10 more Pre-Camp Unit Rankings for the team's major position units (Defensive Backs; Defensive Linemen; Field Goal Unit; Kick/Punt Coverage; Kick/Punt Return; Linebackers; Offensive Linemen; Running Backs; Quarterbacks; and Tight Ends).

These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.

For the top-ranked position group, the Irish wide receivers, click here.

Defensive Backs:

Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 2 overall unit

Probable Starters: Three CBs will likely start games for the Irish this season: returning senior Darrin Walls, senior Raeshon McNeil, and sophomore Robert Blanton. The current starters (following spring practice) are McNeil and Blanton.

Fifth-year senior Kyle McCarthy returns to start at SS and junior (redshirt sophomore) Harrison Smith moves back to his natural FS position (from strong side linebacker last season) to replace David Bruton along the back line.

Proven Depth: On paper, junior Gary Gray ranks as the best No. 4 CB option in recent Irish history (since at least 1992-93). Senior Sergio Brown moved from free safety last season to strong safety in the spring (a much better fit from this outsider's perspective). Brown is the team's nickel back, basically the "twelfth" starter against the offenses of this era. Fifth-year senior Ray Herring returns to back up both safety positions as well.

Additional Depth: Sophomore (redshirt freshman) Jamoris Slaughter and true freshman E.J. Banks, who enrolled last January but missed spring practice due to (a November 2008) knee injury provide depth at CB, as does senior special teams gunner Mike Anello. If you've followed Anello's Irish career, it's safe to assume he's a viable option should injuries befall the position group.

Sophomore (redshirt freshman) Dan McCarthy is Smith's backup at free safety.

Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 1. If the front four can consistently stop the run, and if the defense as a whole can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the 2009 Irish secondary will rank among the nation's best. My current No. 1 ranked ND unit, the wide receivers, will slip from the No. 1 spot if 2009 mirrors 2008: no consistent third presence emerges and we receive an encore of the Tate/Floyd show…an admittedly enjoyable show, but one that can be neutralized by a sound defense.

Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 4. As always, these comparisons will be explained in later columns (vs. the lower-ranked position groups). Suffice it to say, a defensive backfield is inherently more dependent upon its teammates than are defensive linemen and linebackers.

Strengths: More than one playmaking CB? Check. More than two? Probable check. The rare luxury of three? Plausible check.

Hard-hitting, sure tackling safeties? Check and check. Depth in both the nickel and dime packages? Check, check. Veteran backups coupled with potential young stars along the two-deep? Check again.

What doesn't this unit have entering 2009? (as I'm sure you guessed, I've taken a shot at that question below). I'm on record predicting 19 interceptions – tied for the third highest total of the last 20 years. I'm certain the nickel package is the team's best defense, and last season's improvement in the unit from September through season's end was staggering:

  • Over the first four games of 2008, ND ranked 101st in the nation in pass defense. In the season's final eight regular season games, the Irish ranked No. 2 overall, yielding just over 151 yards per game through the air.

Since those last eight games, the unit has been upgraded at CB with the addition of Darrin Walls and expected improvement of two first year players (Blanton and Gray); and has likely remained even at safety with expected improvement of McCarthy and Brown and the obvious potential of Harrison Smith.

If the front seven cooperates, look out.

Potential Weaknesses:

A good amount of our faith in the '09 secondary is based on supposition, so a quick rundown of the plausible issues for each player (however unlikely) is in order:

  • Darrin Walls' development could have stagnated in his time away from the program. Walls hasn't played a football game that mattered since November 24, 2007. It's unrealistic to think he'll hit the ground running vs. Nevada on September 5, 2009…then again, I wouldn't put it past him.
  • Harrison Smith might not cover as many mistakes as did his predecessor, David Bruton. I hate to harp on this point, because I think Smith will have a fantastic overall season – but that remains completely speculative. We have no proof Smith is (at present) a game-ready, BCS-level college defensive back other than he looks good in practice and in a glorified scrimmage in April.
  • It's possible we've seen the a best of Raeshon McNeil. I find this unlikely, as last year was his first of consistent game action and he was much-improved over his previous intermittent appearances, but if what we've seen is what we'll get, McNeil is (just) a solid college cornerback. The Irish secondary needs him to be a bit more than that.
  • Robert Blanton might be a year away. We've (I've?) anointed him as the next top Irish CB. That might not come to fruition until 2010.
  • We're asking Gary Gray to put it altogether in what is a true backup role. Gray enrolled in January of 2007 but has played in just nine football games. And I've previously mentioned him as a player that could rank among the best No. 4 CB in the nation at season's end…pure speculation at this point.
  • Sergio Brown was a much better last season near the line of scrimmage than covering (anyone) downfield. As a nickel DB, he'll again be asked to match up downfield vs. slot receivers and tight ends in '09.
  • Kyle McCarthy saves plenty of big plays, but has yet to prove he can consistently make enough of them himself.
  • Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy have never played a college snap.

Year-End Prediction and Ranking: The five best Irish secondaries I've seen (and was old enough to remember) were the 1988, '89, '92, '93, and '02 units. The 2009 secondary has a chance to be No. 6. (I'm fairly confident the Faust secondaries that I struggle to remember don't matchup with my top five…)

The depth of the Irish secondary is greater than any '09 position group, and these defensive backs represent the deepest unit at the position since 1992-93. There's competition for both cornerback spots; for the coveted third CB role; for both the nickel and dime roles; and in redshirt freshman Jamoris Slaughter, the Irish have a fifth CB and (potentially) safety that could challenge for a starting role at either spot next season (at the latest).

There are no sure things in college football, but any coaching staff would embrace the opportunity to guide this defensive backfield into battle over a 12-game span. I think the Irish secondary will finish the season as the team's No. 2 overall position group with a chance at the top spot if they receive a little help from their friends up front.

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