Expectations Expected and Accepted

Defensive Backs coach Chuck Martin won't have to raise his own expectation level to meet the demands of Notre Dame fans nationwide.

"We're here to provide a quality environment for our players to gain a degree and win championships. This is about winning championships." – Brian Kelly

Chuck Martin is no stranger to championship football.

Two titles as Brian Kelly's defensive coordinator at Division II Grand Valley State and two more as the school's head coach elevated Martin's stature among his peers and his own level of expectations for his program, his staff, and himself.

Martin's .914 winning percentage ranked second to Mount Union's Larry Kehres among active college football coaches (regardless of division). From 2000-2009, Martin helped the program win 122 games and the Lakers emerged victorious in 121 of their last 130 contests.

"Our level of expectations is very high," Martin offered. "Everyone says ‘well they're high at Notre Dame.' Well trust me, they're high within our staff too, so we're pretty (comfortable) with those expectations."

Martin's expected to morph the nation's 76th ranked passing defense into a group capable of playing championship football. The Irish secondary intercepted nine passes last season – five by departing 5th-year senior safety Kyle McCarthy. (The team as a whole picked off 12 passes as LB Brian Smith added two and NT Ian Williams one.) The group faced eight first-year starting quarterbacks and allowed 14 touchdown passes while recording just six interceptions as a unit.

And though objective analysis is necessary, one subjective and universally accepted opinion will take center stage for Martin, for head coach Brian Kelly, and for defensive coordinator Paul Diaco as they attempt to improve the leaky unit:

Notre Dame's 2009 defense, especially its secondary, ranked as one of the worst group of collective tacklers in recent memory. And for the second straight year, the effort worsened as the season progressed.

Martin will address the issues internally and be ready to initiate necessary change entering spring ball.

"We'll go back and look (at the film), I will on my own time," Martin explained. "I have a learning curve to make sure I get caught up to speed with the whole defense (of new defensive coordinator Paul Diaco), and then particularly on the back end (the secondary). It's important to know not only what (Diaco's) expectations are, but also the intricacies that make that defense go.

"I'll look at some tape of the kids returning to get a feel for them and their strengths and weaknesses," Martin continued. "Not to dissect what they did a year ago but to watch the kids move and to get to know them better so I can be a little more informed in my early conversations, and to get an opinion on where they are in their (development)."

The DB Cupboard

While fans have recently lamented the dearth of safeties available to the Irish next season, a closer look reveals a group of defensive backs with enough talent and versatility to round out a quality unit with a competitive spring session and the guidance of a new staff.

Experienced Cornerbacks:

  • 5th-year senior Darrin Walls: 33 games played (21 starts); 69 tackles, 23 passes defended/broken up; 2 INT (one 73-yard TD return); 2 forced fumbles.
  • Senior Gary Gray: 20 games played (7 starts); 38 tackles; 9 PD/BU; 3 INT. Gray has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
  • Junior Robert Blanton: 24 games (12 starts); 71 tackles; 14 PD/BU; 4 INT (one 47-yard TD return).

Experienced Safety:

  • Senior Harrison Smith: 25 games played (20 starts). Only six of Smith's 20 starts have been at Safety as he played all of 2008 and the second-half of 2009 as a hybrid LB/Nickel Back. 126 career tackles (15 for loss); 3.5 sacks, 2 QB hits; 22 PD/BU, 0 interceptions. Smith has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Playing Time at Safety:

  • Junior Jamoris Slaughter: 12 games played (1 start). 14 tackles. Slaughter earned 33:51 playing time last season including 110 special teams appearances (note, Slaughter's 33 minutes and 51 seconds of playing time do not include the 110 special teams snaps). Slaughter, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining, switched from cornerback to safety in late-October last season.
  • Sophomore Zeke Motta: 12 games played (no starts); 12 tackles; a half-sack; one QB hit. Motta earned 11:06 of field time last season, mostly as the team's Dime Package Safety…a player that lined up as the equivalent of an outside linebacker prior to the snap. He made 166 special teams appearances, mostly as a member of the Irish coverage teams.
  • Junior Dan McCarthy: 5 games played (no starts) with one tackle. McCarthy appeared in the Washington State game (1:08 from scrimmage) and made 15 special teams appearances. He has three seasons of eligibility remaining after being withheld from action as a freshman due to a high school neck injury.

Upcoming Defensive Back Debuts:

  • Sophomore E.J. Banks: DNP last season and has four seasons of eligibility remaining. The 5'11" 185-pound Banks (entering the fall) was a four-year starting safety (and quarterback) in high school (Pittsburgh) but worked with the Irish cornerbacks last season. Banks was an early enrollee in January 2009 but was unable to participate in spring drills as a true freshman due to a knee injury.
  • Chris Badger: 6'0" 178-pound safety enters with just four players on the safety depth chart, none of which, with the exception of Dan McCarthy, are absolute locks to remain at the position in the fall (Smith could remain at LB; Motta to could continue to grow into an LB; Slaughter, though unlikely, could simply project back to CB in the eyes of the new staff).
  • Spencer Boyd: The 5'10" 176-pound cornerback could get an early look as a return specialist as well as he's shown to be a talented ball carrier with vision.
  • Lo Wood: 5'10" 160 pounds. Though 160 seems small for a college CB (he obviously will carry more weight by next season), Wood is a natural hitter and like Boyd, could make an immediate impact on special teams (in Wood's case, in coverage and as a punt/kick blocker, as he blew up seven combined last season).

Full Circle

Proving the adage that patience is a virtue, Martin has finally reunited with his former Grand Valley State boss and arrived at the University he's always loved.

"I was at a great school and had a great opportunity (to succeed Kelly as head coach) and also I was trying to develop myself as a head coach," Martin offered of his decision to remain at Grand Valley rather than join Kelly at Central Michigan and again at Cincinnati.

"It was part of my development," he continued, "And the decision to stay rather than leave even two or three years later…it didn't make a lot of sense to go at the time. I was still developing, even though we were having a lot of success, in my mind as a head coach, I wanted to finish that. I wanted to be a head coach and learn how to be a head coach."

As noted by Kelly, Martin's on-the-job training produced sterling results.

"He took a program that had won a number of championships and believe it or not, built on that," Kelly mused.

"That sometimes is a daunting task. Chuck took it on and made it better, so he knows how to get the best out of his players and the success that he had at Grand Valley State is unparalleled across the country. He ranks up there with (the likes of) Larry Kehres at Mount Union in terms of sustained success over a long period of time.

"Now he's going to bring that ability to motivate and to develop to our defensive backs.

Martin is prepared for that task and for the pressures of succeeding at Notre Dame. In fact, it he's much better prepared for his upcoming tenure at the school than the last time he was offered to move to South Bend.

"My brother actually went here, (class of '88) and when it came down to that choice for me, or continuing my own college career (Martin became an All-American safety at Millikin University and a GTE Academic All-American at the school), I knew it wasn't going to happen at Notre Dame because there aren't a lot of…well, any, Division I athletes in my gene pool," he joked.

"It was a very difficult decision not to attend here, but now I'm glad I didn't because I set the course for where I am now at age 42. Because it's probably even cooler to be here as a coach rather than a student."

For Irish fans, Martin's cool quotient will increase exponentially with each solid tackle, pass break-up, and interception recorded by the students he'll coach on the gridiron next fall.

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