The exasperated defensive backs coach touched on the confidence of his group; the relative failures of past weeks, and how the Irish plan to improve in the season's final five contests.
Let's Try Something Different
Harrison Smith from FS to Nickel Linebacker; Sergio Brown from Nickel to SS (with some time "back" at FS as well); Jamoris Slaughter from CB to both S roles…how did Coach Brown feel about the most recent tweaks to the Irish defensive personnel?
"It wasn't 100 percent," Brown understated of Notre Dame's overall success, "It wasn't exactly like I envisioned it, but we did make some progress.
"With (BC) being Jamoris' first time (at safety) – there's going to be some wrinkles (thrown at him by the opponent) – but for the most part there was some progress that was made."
"We were better tacklers. We were in better position for the most part. We did make some plays. Sergio was around the ball. We were better. We were better in a few different areas."
Though Eagles freshman QB Dave Shinskie threw for a season-high 279 yards, the aged first-year signal caller did throw three interceptions and complete fewer than 50 percent of his pass attempts.
Down Goes Harrison
What ultimately necessitated the move of Harrison Smith, viewed by most as a natural free safety in the pre-season, back down near the line of scrimmage, a position he played last year in a personnel pinch?
"It's based on trying to give our defense the chance to make some plays, putting guys in the best possible position, and utilizing our versatility," Brown stated.
As for Smith's comfort level at linebacker…
"I can't answer that. That's something you have to ask JT (Coach Tenuta) or Harrison."
Smith noted that he was told (by both Coach Tenuta and Coach Brown) he would move back to linebacker during Notre Dame's Bye week, and that the move would take place following the matchup with USC.
Smith enjoyed his initial foray back to his 2008 stomping grounds and that he's quite comfortable in the hybrid role.
"I would say yes, considering I played the whole year there last year. I had a lot of fun last game, and I still play safety sometimes, but not most of the time.
"Getting to blitz more, that's a lot of fun."
As for his to-date scattered experience as safety, Smith hasn't let the lows hurt his confidence going forward.
"I had some games that I didn't think I played very well in," Smith said of his time at safety. "You can't dwell on it very long. I was disappointed in myself, but you get over that and you go on, or you're not going to be any good at all."
Brown was asked about the now-celebrated play of Kyle McCarthy. The 5th-Year senior captain is tied for third nationally in total interceptions (5), and ranks fourth nationally in both total tackles and solo tackles per game among safeties.
"He's been relatively disciplined; opportunistic; and he's capitalized on some of the opportunities he's had," Brown began. "He's definitely the most dependable (defensive back) right now. He's doing this from start to finish…for he most part, he's done what we've asked him to do."
Brown's tempered praise of the lone defender who most fans view as the team's unquestioned defensive MVP suggests that what we see on TV may not illustrate the complete defensive picture.
From an outsider's perspective, I'm certain I'd be happy with a few more Kyle McCarthy's roaming the defensive backfield...and I'll leave it at that.
One route that's given the Irish trouble this season is the post-corner route from the slot, a pattern often run in tandem as the outside (same side) receiver runs a short hook underneath. The hook route is used to freeze the outside cornerback in coverage and allow a passing lane to the corner, either between the CB and the Safety or within the zone coverage of three defenders in the area.
Why have the Irish defenders struggled consistently vs. the corner ("7-Route") this season?
"The first (issue) is realizing that you've (as a defensive back) given it up before and that teams will (consequently) throw it again," Brown observed of the mental aspect of defending the route. "As a (defender) that's given up a couple, you have to see what it is that you're doing.
"I (as a coach) have to do a much better job of saying ‘this is where you need to be in this situation.' That's what we've worked on (in practice). I've really tried to work hard on that. Really, really hard.
"I really believe its getting through," Brown continued when asked if he'd seen progress, "but you never really know until Saturday. I'm waiting patiently and optimistically until Saturday.
Brown stated he's conditioned as a coach (and likely a former defensive back) to believe his players will come through and make the next play.
Motivation 601: Going Back to the Well
The amiable but admittedly frustrated Brown was asked if he was running out of ways to get through to his talented yet struggling position group.
"You never run out of buttons, you hit a frustration level where you (keep adjusting to situations and personnel). You never truly run out," Brown observed (he was prodded with the "button-pushing" phrasing).
"But it's not a machine. The thing I have to realize if there's a problem; there's a player and a person, and between the two of us, we have to figure out how to get that done. And really that's the coach, because the players don't know.
"The only thing they know is they didn't make a play and they feel pretty bad about it. I have to get through the ‘feeling bad' part and say ‘this is what it is, this is what we have to do, this is what we need to do, so let's get it done."
Let Me Guess: 28 yards on 4th Down Ranks Higher?
Brown was asked if the team's lack of interceptions, most notably dropped interceptions, has fueled his frustration this season.
"Honestly, I have a very high frustration level right now, and missing interceptions is toward the bottom," Brown offered half-jokingly. "That kind of lets you know where my state of mind is. It's a competitive sport. I love our kids, and every time out we're waiting for them to do what we know they can do."
One veteran player that passes the litmus test of reliability in his assignment is senior cornerback and the team's best (my words, not the coach's) slot defender, Raeshon McNeil.
"The one thing about Raeshon," Brown began, "Raeshon is a guy, regardless of how much he plays; how much he practices… if it's really crunch time, and you need a guy to go in and you have a pretty good idea of where he'll be (what role he needs to fill)… Raeshon is that guy.
"Regardless of whether he played earlier or not, it was a situation that we needed a play made," Brown offered of McNeil's second half insertion vs. Boston College. "And the biggest part of making a play is just knowing where guys are going to be. We felt pretty good as a staff, that if we put Raeshon in he would have a good understanding of where he should be."
Note: We'll have more on McNeil and Notre Dame's coverage of slot receivers in a column to be published Friday afternoon.
At Least They Couldn't Legally Celebrate, Post-Game…
Notre Dame's defense has squared off vs. three true freshmen this season: Michigan's Tate Forcier; USC's Matt Barkley; and BC's 25-year-old "freshman" Dave Shinskie. The trio totaled 899 yards passing (and a 2-1 W-L mark) in those contests.
On tap? Cougars freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel. The 6'3" signal-caller threw for a career high 354 yards last week in Wazzu's loss at California.
"He's a freshman, Brown immediately observed when asked about Tuel's obvious progress since the start of the season. "He moves around well. If you give him time, he'll hit some big throws on you.
"Traditionally Washington State has had big time quarterbacks and I believe somewhere down the road he'll probably fit into that tradition pretty well."
The leader of the Irish defensive backfield seemed eager to throw a few wrinkles at the newbie on Saturday.
"He's a freshman," Brown reiterated. "He's got good size; he's got a really good arm; he's pretty mobile; and he'll have more confidence based on his last game.
"But like anybody else, it all depends on how the game starts out. If we come out and we're tackling him; we're hitting him; we're breaking up balls; intercepting passes…that shuts that confidence down real quick. Very quick."