In August last year, I was able to watch fall football camp and one thing really stood out to me. This Irish team was having fun again. They were playing with confidence and you could feel the positive attitude from my seat hundreds of feet away. The biggest attitude adjustment was with the secondary. The players in the secondary were walking with a new confidence and hitting with attitude. A big reason was Shane Walton and Gerome Sapp and now the Irish staff will have to replace both.
The Irish staff will have a hard time replacing the heart and soul of the 2002 team in Shane Walton. They will also have a hard time replacing Gerome Sapp. The loss of Sapp in the Navy game last year showed how valuable he was to the Notre Dame defense. The secondary has numbers but some young players are going to have some big shoes to fill.
Shane Walton and Gerome Sapp were a large part of the Irish success last year on defense. Sapp and Walton finished the season 4th and 5th in tackles on the team last year and accounted for 11 of the 20 interceptions on the team. The staff is going to have a hard time replacing that production but the hardest part will be replacing their leadership. Someone will have to step up and take that leadership role carried mostly by Walton.
Glenn Earl might be a likely candidate. Earl finished 2002 second on the team with 81 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack and two interceptions. Earl has been a playmaker since he first stepped on the field and is a valuable asset to the Notre Dame defense. Knowing him in the little time I talked to him on the phone, I don't think he will be as vocal as Walton but I am sure everyone on the team respects him a great deal. Earl has had a great career at Notre Dame and has far exceeded all expectations. It would not surprise me if he switched to strong safety this year to try to fill the hole left by Sapp. If someone else can play strong safety well enough, he will stay at free safety but if they have problems filling Sapp's position, I expect Earl to move. He should have a great senior season.
What could have been? That is the question I ask myself when I watch Vontez Duff playing corner. Duff has been a fantastic corner for Notre Dame and should have a great final season next fall. I still wonder what could have been if the Irish had another corner prospect and Duff was a running back. Duff should be an NFL cornerback and this was probably the best thing that could have happened to him considering his size but I sure would have liked to see him taking some snaps. Duff will likely take over the vocal leader role in the secondary and I bet he has a similar season to Walton's last year. I am just glad Vontez Duff is on the team—cornerback or running back.
Garron Bible saw quite a bit of time last year as the dime back. He also started a few games with Gerome Sapp sitting out. Bible is a fighter and will hit you. He has improved quite a bit after coming to Notre Dame as a running back. He started as a corner prospect and has since moved to strong safety. He should begin spring as the starter at strong safety. Will he hold onto to that position in spring and fall?
Preston Jackson also saw a lot of time last year coming in as the nickel back. Jackson is also a gamer and he has no problem talking on the field. He was clearly the player the opposition attacked but he never backed down or hung his head. He has no loss for confidence and that is half the battle. He will be competing with a lot of players for the starting position opposite Duff.
Irish fans will be excited for the return of Jason Beckstrom. Beckstrom sat out the entire year last year with an injury but will return this spring. He played a lot of nickel back in 2001 and should be considered a starter. He will need some time to learn the new defense but I am sure he will be excited to get back on the field. I think people forget how good he was for most of 2001. He had a couple of bad games but really played well the rest of the year and in limited action in 2000. I will be very glad to see him back on the field. He will compete with Jackson and Richardson for the starting spot opposite Duff.
Lionel Bolen was one of the most impressive athletes of the 2001 recruiting class. He looked to be a fantastic athlete who had all the skills needed to be a great safety prospect in college. Bolen hasn't seen much time as of yet but he has all the physical skills needed. He played a lot of special teams and recovered the fumble on the kickoff in the Purdue game for a touchdown. His time and opportunity is now. He will compete with Garron Bible for the starting strong safety position.
Quentin Burrell is an interesting free safety prospect. He also hasn't seen much time yet other than special teams but he has been on the field. He is a rangy player who covers a lot of ground. I am excited to see him in spring and fall. He has the height at 6-0 but needs to add some size to his frame while keeping his speed. Burrell should be the back up at free safety and might compete for the dime spot. Watch Burrell because he will likely take over for Earl in 2004 unless a freshman takes his spot.
The player to watch this spring is Mike Richardson. Richardson came to Notre Dame with little fanfare or hype but he really impressed me in fall camp. The inside scoop is that he has continued to impress throughout the year. He has excellent size—6-1, 190 pounds—and seemed to have that hips and ball awareness to become a great player at corner. He will compete with Jackson and Beckstrom for the other corner spot. Watch his progress through spring practices.
The Irish staff signed a lot of kids who can play in the secondary but we are not sure how many will actually end up there. The uncertainty of where these prospects eventually line up clouds the picture of how deep the secondary is. We should know more in the fall.
One player destined for the secondary is Freddie Parish. He might also be destined for stardom. Freddie was originally recruited as a corner prospect and could easily play the position but I bet he is quickly moved to strong safety where I expect him to have a great career. I can't stress enough how impressed I am with his physical play. He is the perfect strong safety prospect but he could play any of the four positions on the field. I would be tempted to let him play free safety as well because he is so athletic. One thing is certain, Parish will not be happy until he starts somewhere and I would not be surprised if he did at some time next year.
Another player destined for the secondary is Tommy Zbikowski. Zbikowski played quarterback in high school but will start out at corner for the Irish. He has great size—6-0, 190 pounds—and impressive athletic ability. Can he play corner? If he can, he will help out the Irish a great deal.
Another player who will play in the secondary is LaBrose Hedgemon. Hedgemon is a smaller corner prospect—5-9, 185 pounds—but has a 38-inch vertical leap. He does have good speed running a 4.43 at the Nike Camp last summer. Spiderman is rumored to have excellent coverage skills and will play corner for the Irish.
Isaiah Gardner was recruiting as a corner prospect. I have a feeling Gardner is going to carry the football for Notre Dame as a running back. If he does play corner, his 5-11, 190-pound frame will give the Irish size at corner. He gave up one completion all year playing corner for the first time last year.
The staff have two other prospects that could play in the secondary. Ambrose Wooden would certainly be a fine corner prospect with his 6-0, 185-pound frame and 4.26 speed. I expect Ambrose to play wide receiver. Chase Anastasio is going to surprise a lot of people with his athleticism. Anastasio has excellent lateral movement and speed and I can see why the staff wants him to start out at wide receiver. He can make things happen with the ball in his hands. He could move to a safety position in the future.
I cannot remember the last time I had this many players to write about when writing about the secondary. Prospects and hopefully talent are available but two players will have to step into a starting role. Two more will have to become solid leaders like Walton and Sapp. They will also need to find a solid nickel and dime back but they have plenty of prospects to choose from.
The Irish have numbers in the secondary for the first time in a long time. The question remains how many of them can become great players? All that remains is teaching the game and after watching Trent Walters at work, he is a fine teacher. He did an outstanding job repairing confidence and getting the secondary to play with passion, aggression and to have fun again. Hopefully the Irish secondary will be having fun in 2003.