Game film doesn't lie, and there's ample evidence to suggest the returning defensive personnel can be beaten by both air and land.
One player better prepared to answer for last year's miscues is senior cornerback Gary Gray.
Gray began camp in '09 as the team's No. 5 cornerback, partially the result of a spring semester spent at home in South Carolina for personal reasons.
He was the squad's fourth cornerback to receive a start and the first not to lose his starting role once occupied.
After debuting with the second unit in the opening blowout of Nevada, Gray played either sparingly (Michigan State, Purdue, Washington) or not at all (at Michigan). He likewise was benched in the second half at Pittsburgh for reportedly missing a check (defensive audible). Gray made eight tackles in the contest, including two in the open-field vs. elusive Panthers ‘back Dion Lewis.
That lack of continuity and inconsistent playing time was an issue in the defensive backfield in '09. The unit as a whole shuffled regularly on what was an underwhelming defense. But as the Irish secondary trio of Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Raeshon McNeil struggled over the first five contests, Gray was finally called upon to make his first collegiate start vs. then-No. 6 USC in mid-October.
He wasn't a cure-all for the defensive backfield, but the redshirt-junior cornerback brought a physical approach and confidence that would serve him well as he fought through his first start against a trio of talented pass catchers.
After committing a pass interference penalty (Gray broke on the ball well, but went through the receiver) and then giving up a touchdown pass (on a play USC scored with vs. the Irish in 2008, to boot), Gray bounced back with a game-changing late interception to set up an Irish touchdown. Additionally, two of his six tackles stopped tailback Joe McKnight short of the first down marker.
The latter occurrence – showing up vs. the run – has become Gray's calling card, and earned the senior early praise from his new head coach.
"I was very impressed with our corners and their ability to tackle," Brian Kelly noted after an early spring scrimmage. Gary Gray, in one instance, made a great one-on-one tackle ...."
The Irish cornerbacks have entered the "prove it" stage of their careers, and the staff will count on the defensive backfield to show improvement across the board next fall. Gray's expected performance is the least worrisome of the group.
Gray's 2009 Season OutlookGray's willingness in run support afforded him first team duties exiting the spring session as the team's boundary cornerback – the position expected to receive the bulk of the work against opposing running games.
"Gary's a great tackler," explained Irish field cornerback and 5th-year senior Darrin Walls. "He's one of the better tacklers out here in the secondary and most of the runs come to the boundary and that's just a great fit for him."
Gray showed more confidence than did his position mates in terms of challenging opposing receivers last season. He was the only cornerback who consistently shed or fought blocks well into November.
His penchant for hugging a receiver during short routes will be key, early, as opponents begin to scout the Irish new look defense:
- Can he perfect the nuance of a well-time hit vs. the penalized mistake of arriving too early?
- Can he continue to deftly disguise pass interference? (as described below in the Boston College game).
- Gray intermittently struggled to jam receivers, though more often vs. the likes of crafty veterans such as Boston College's Rich Gunnell rather than more physical targets he encountered. Can he jam, turn, and run vs. fleet pass-catchers when needed on the boundary side?
- Gray plays the deep quarter coverage scheme (downfield is divided into four quadrants) exceptionally well, and each of Gray's three career interceptions has occurred playing in a zone defense. Can he excel in red zone man-to-man? (A situation that consistently hurt Irish corners last year.)
Entering his senior season, Gray, who plays much bigger than his 5'11" 190-pound listing, shows the necessary confidence to succeed at a position that's constantly under siege vs. modern offenses. Key to that confidence equating to production is new defensive backs coach, Chuck Martin.
"He's a great motivator; he teaches you on every play," Gray said of the coach charged with transforming the talented but underperforming backfield group. "If you mess up, he corrects you right there on the spot, and if you do well he (offers) congratulations."
Communication, on-field and off, will help Gray begin to reach his potential as a well-rounded defender...one with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
Look for the senior cornerback to rank among the five most improved Irish players in 2010.
Gray's Best Moments of 2009:
- Purdue: Gray did his part vs. Irish killer Keith Smith, showing good coverage on a 2nd Quarter comeback route intended for the big target and later defending a pass on a deep 3rd and 3 fade route in the second half. Gray completed his solid performance with a heads-up play, staying home on a throwback pass after just previously checking into the contest. He showed scheme discipline again, remaining on the backside to make a play on a fake end around for a minimal gain.
- USC: >Trailing by 14 points, Irish linebacker Brian Smith leapt over tailback Joe McKnight's cut block on an outside blitz. Smith then forced QB Matt Barkley into a quick throw to his right. The pass deflected off the hands of Trojans WR Ronald Johnson and into Gray's, who returned the offering 30 yards to the USC 13-yard line, giving the Irish new life early in the 4th Quarter.
- Boston College: In his second career start, Gray was beaten briefly (by Eagles receiver Colin Larmond down the left sideline. Gray cut off Larmond's route (without major contact) and the deep throw fell incomplete. It was technically pass interference (not called), but the move was that of a wily veteran – not a player in his second dose of extended action.
Gray's Moments to Forget in 2009
- Michigan: Gray never saw the field as the Irish defense was riddled by freshman quarterback Tate Forcier.
- Michigan State: Late in the 2nd Quarter, Gray had solid coverage but was (correctly) called for pass interference on Spartans WR Blair White's skinny post. He was immediately removed from the game for the common penalty.
- USC: After a first series interference call, Gray's baptism by fire continued as Trojans receiver Damian Williams ran his favorite route: a hard step to the fade (corner) and full-speed in-cut to the post. Gray turned outside on Williams' fake just as the talented receiver broke hard to the post and QB Matt Barkley delivered a the pitch-and-catch for the score..
- Stanford: With the team's knotted at 38 and just over five minutes remaining, Cardinal tailback Toby Gerhart steamrolled a squared-up Gray in the open-field. The Stanford power back then cast aside Jamoris Slaughter and carried Harrison Smith for another 7 yards to put a definitive stamp on the 13-yard gain. Gerhart scored the winning touchdown eight plays later.
Gray's Career Stats: 20 games played (7 starts); 45 tackles, 6 pass break-ups, 1 fumble recovery, 3 INT