Under Siege

No position group received more criticism last season than the oft-challenged Notre Dame cornerbacks. IrishEyes previews the unit that played far below the level of expectations thrust upon them prior to the 2009 season.

With the start of spring practice just three weeks away, IrishEyes continues its preview of each player and the team's key position groups. Today's edition: Cornerbacks.

Wide Receivers Spring Preview: Wide Open

Tight Ends Spring Preview: In Good Hands

Running Backs Spring Preview: Crowded House

Something to Prove – Cornerbacks

The Irish return four monogram winners from 2009: Expected 5th-year senior Darrin Walls; senior Gary Gray (2 years remaining); junior Robert Blanton (2 years remaining); and junior Jamoris Slaughter (3 years remaining).

Sophomore E.J. Banks (4 years remaining) was withheld from action last fall while freshmen cornerbacks Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd enrolled at the University in January and will participate in practice sessions this spring.

Note: All players are listed in terms of their class status for next fall.

2009 Playing Time:

  • Darrin Walls – 221:31 with 51 ST appearances
  • Robert Blanton – 166:57 with 35 ST appearances
  • Gary Gray – 152:31 with 38 ST appearances
  • Jamoris Slaughter – 33:51 with 110 ST appearances. (Slaughter will be included in the Safety position preview.)

Taking the 5th – Darrin Walls

Much was expected of the formerly exiled CB upon his return to the team last season. But Walls, like the bulk of his secondary mates, struggled to make key plays. In Walls' case, the lack of consistency was maddening: when he was in position to make plays on the football(Michigan and Pittsburgh most notably) the near misses frustrated Irish fans and the senior was said to have "peaked as a sophomore" (prior to his junior season away from school for personal reasons).

There were also times he lacked concentration, and was absolutely toasted on standard double moves (see photo).

We Have Questions: Can a new defensive scheme, new defense staff, and renewed confidence help Walls become more of a playmaker when the ball's in the air? Can Walls regain his aggressiveness on the edge vs. the run – an element of his game that seemed on the rise during the 2007 season? Should we stop touting the potential of a 32-game veteran (and 21-game starter) with two career interceptions?

Hope Springs Eternal: Walls is easily the team's fastest defensive back in pads and there's been no indication that he has poor hands (at least relative to other cornerbacks). He glides down the sideline, appears capable in press coverage, and if the new scheme affords him a decent number of snaps with man-to-man responsibilities, I believe the Pittsburgh native could thrive in his final year at the school. Stop me when you've heard this before…

Spring Prediction: A starting role that he'll hold through fall camp. But September is the proving ground for a 5th-year player with two aggressive position mates nipping at his heels.

Pleading the 5th – Robert Blanton

How about a mulligan?

We Have Questions: Has a top tier freshman defender ever fallen from grace with the fan base (and previous coaching staff) as quickly in his sophomore season as did Blanton last year? Where was the trademark aggression and confidence he displayed in 2008 (and in every competitive practice situation I witnessed last fall)? What happened to the ball-hawking skills Blanton showed as a rookie? Was the position's inability to play the football in the air last year somehow contagious, and is there an antidote?

Hope Springs Eternal: I had a higher opinion of Robert Blanton entering last season than any young defensive back at the school since Vontez Duff (in the final days of the Bob Davie era). So hope springs eternal that I'm not an idiot…

Seriously, Blanton is a much better football player than he showed last season and still could be the best playmaking DB on the squad. He appears most comfortable with the ball in front of him and safety help behind him.

Spring Prediction: The Nickel CB role – and that's basically a starting spot in today's game. I'd prefer to see Blanton covering the slot receiver because he seems too tentative on the outside (and I'm not only referring to the cushion mandated by last year's scheme) and appears vulnerable to a burner down the sideline. His competitive nature, strength, and defensive acumen far outweigh his wheels, at least on Saturdays.

Breakout Season? – Gary Gray

If I've learned one thing over the last 10-15 years it's that we too often anoint a young player as a ready-for-primetime-performer. A little seasoning at the college level goes a long way for most and Gary Gray (20 appearances and 7 starts in the last two seasons) has just enough to enter the '10 season with a deserved air of confidence.

We Have Questions: Can he earn a starting CB role? Each of Gray's three career interceptions have occurred playing in a zone defense: can Gray lock down an opposing No. 1 or No. 2 receiver when needed? Could he handle a possible move to safety, not full-time, but in certain coverage schemes?

Gray's usually around the ball: can he perfect the nuance of the well-timed hit (and crafty interference that goes uncalled) vs. the 15-yard mistake of arriving a tick too early when making a play?

Hope Springs Eternal: Gray earned more playing time than he received last season. He challenged opposing receivers more often than the rest of his fellow CB though he did have a tendency to squat on routes, a maneuver that can (and did) lead to defenders getting behind him down the seams and on post corners. Additionally, he fought off blocks and mixed it up vs. opposing running games better than any Irish cornerback last year.

Gray plays the deep quarter coverage scheme (downfield is divided into four quadrants) exceptionally well.

Spring Prediction: If he can continue to make plays on the ball and distinguish himself in press coverage, Gray should earn the role of No. 2 CB at the conclusion of the spring session.

Four Session Rookie – E.J. Banks

An early enrollee in January 2009, Banks missed his first spring practice session due to injury, but he was able to acclimate mentally to a new level of football. That time in the program and an entire season on the scout team last year; coupled with a chance to fight for the No. 4 CB role this spring and again in August will give Banks four practice "seasons" prior to his first minute of field time next fall.

We Have Questions: Has Banks made the mental transition to cornerback after starring primarily at safety (and quarterback) in high school? Is his backpedal and footwork polished enough to realistically compete with the upperclassmen and hold off incoming freshmen Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd? Can he challenge for a return man role in the spring?

Hope Springs Eternal: Banks' head was admittedly swimming in last August's freshman interviews. Regardless of the scheme change, a full season of practice should have him ready to react and compete rather than think about his responsibilities on every snap.

Spring Prediction: I have no basis for this, but I think Banks might be challenged by Lo Wood, a more natural CB, in spring ball. That has nothing to do with the long-term future of either player, just a prediction after the upcoming one-month audition.

Into the Fray – Lo Wood

Both Wood and fellow early enrollee Chris Badger (a safety to be discussed in our next preview) step onto campus with a chance to compete for a meaningful backup role in depleted positions.

We Have Questions: He appears to have the technique, grit, and craftiness to play CB; does he have enough game speed earn a two-deep role as a freshman? Wood had the luxury of seeing plays develop in front of him in high school; can he perform in press coverage, turn and run and make plays with the ball in the air? Can a player that dominated high school competition adjust to first 10 times he's burned in practice and, more important, the first two times he's burned if given the opportunity in the fall?

Hope Springs Eternal: The door is open for Wood as Notre Dame has just three veteran CB options (Walls, Blanton, Gray) should Jamoris Slaughter remain at safety as expected. A team needs at least four viable CB entering every contest and five to be at the ready in case of injury. Wood played the ball well in high school and appears more quick than fast: two skill sets I like to see in a young defensive player.

Spring Prediction: A spot on the two-deep depth chart at CB, slightly ahead of redshirt-freshman E.J. Banks.

Hidden Yardage – Spencer Boyd

In addition to future auditions at cornerback and (likely) slot receiver, Boyd could find an early home in either the punt and/or kick returner role.

We Have Questions: Is Boyd destined for the other side of the football? (Slot receiver or gadget player as a young contributor?) Will Boyd challenge John Goodman, Shaquelle Evans, Theo Riddick, and E.J. Banks for the punt or kick return role? How much of an adjustment to his technique is needed to allow him to compete, or even simply improve at CB?

Hope Springs Eternal: If a truly gifted open-field runner exists on this roster, he'll likely win one or both of the open return-man roles. A legitimate punt return weapon (Allen Rossum, Vontez Duff, Tom Zbikowski, etc.) takes a backseat to no one in terms of importance to his team in the college game. With Golden Tate gone, the role is there for the taking.

Spring Prediction: In the mix as a return man, but Goodman or Evans holds off Boyd in the spring. Boyd appears elusive with the ability to run through arm tackles, but I'm anxious to see him in space vs. collegiate defenders as highlight reels are, by nature, misleading.

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