StrengthsCornerback: In today's game, a solid third cornerback is a must, not a luxury. The Irish should have that with Walls, Gray, and Blanton, each of whom was highly regarded at this point last season.
The trio has experience (76 games played) and enjoyed intermittent success (Gray in the second half of last season, Blanton as a true freshman in '08, Walls as a shining light on a bad defense in '07). Walls is a fluid athlete, well-suited for the field CB role and a defender that can run with any receiver he'll face.
Blanton, the '08 wunderkind, was a physical, brash defender that excelled reading routes and had no problem taking on a team's biggest target. He dropped off last season, but nonetheless flashed those same freshman year skills vs. Purdue (jumping a sideline route), Washington (intuitively leaving his short zone to take away an open deep receiver on the sidelines), and USC (cutting off a crossing route).
Gray was the team's best cornerback last season - no small feat considering he was yo-yo'd from the lineup. He played the ball better in the air than did Walls and Blanton; was a more reliable tackler in space (as long as the opponent wasn't named "Gerhart") and flashed a few tricks of the trade (read: holding referees are unlikely to notice) that will serve him well going forward. Most important, he improved from his first real action (USC) to the end of the season.
Both Blanton and Gray have two seasons of eligibility remaining while Walls will conclude his final year in 2010.
Banks is a neophyte to the position, playing almost exclusively offense in high school and admittedly struggling to acclimate last season. His new position coach, Chuck Martin, was nonetheless impressed with the quick-footed athlete's progress in the spring.
"E.J. Banks, who never really played any corner in his life before he got here, then he got hurt – he's made great strides this spring. He's given us some confidence that he can help us down the road."Banks will have to hold off a full-season challenge from early enrollee freshman Lo Wood, a confident corner with a bright future, and one that will now receive the bulk of the back end reps with classmate Spencer Boyd out of the mix. Both are likely best served in a true backup role (No. 4 and No. 5 CB) at least early in the season.
I noted Wood for two nice breaks on the ball in one-on-one drills late last spring.
Safety: New blood. Kyle McCarthy deserved a medal of honor for his first eight weeks last season, but he along with the rest of the defense faltered in November. The graduation of McCarthy, Ray Herring, and Sergio Brown opens the door for a fresh start at the position.
Though he struggled last year at free safety as the defense's quarterback, Harrison Smith is a tremendous athlete – perhaps the best on the team. Most of his big plays have occurred near the line of scrimmage (he's the team's career leader in tackles-for-loss (ahead of Darius Fleming, Brian Smith, and Ethan Johnson) and ranks second to Walls in career pass breakups. The strong safety role in Bob Diaco's defense should be well-suited to his skill set.
Jamoris Slaughter is my choice as the team's early season surprise – the player that will have Irish fans buzzing as we exit September. Coach Martin said of Slaughter: "He's a physical kid, an explosive athlete. He's really sharp. Our safeties in this defense have to be the quarterback of the defense; he's very articulate and vocal. He has all the traits to be a good safety. With more (experience) he's going to be outstanding."
Motta saw ample field time with the coverage units last season (fifth on the squad with 166 special teams appearances) and twice won the job as the team's Dime defender as a linebacker/safety near scrimmage. He'll record more than a few big plays/pass breakups vs. crossing tight ends and ‘backs in the flat this fall. Coach Kelly noted he's been used as the team's "Buck" linebacker in nickel packages during the spring.
Dan McCarthy was the first player noted by Kelly during the spring session when the new head man lauded the redshirt junior's tackling ability – a skill set sorely lacking throughout the back seven last season. McCarthy made a diving recovery of a goal line fumble in live goal line action during an April scrimmage.
Each of the four safety competitors can return next season with Slaughter, Motta, and McCarthy eligible through 2012.
Of the five freshmen listed as potential safety prospects (to lend depth in 2010), Collinsworth and Smith are the most likely candidates as they're set to compete at the extremely deep wide receiver position (12 candidates entering August). Spond could challenge for the fifth safety role if the Irish need another athlete on the back line and either he or Roback could provide a practice push to backup Motta for the "Buck" linebacker role in nickel sets.
WeaknessesThe cornerback unit as a whole defended the ball in the air extremely poorly last season. The issue burned them in losses to Michigan, Pittsburgh and Stanford and resurfaced in close wins over Michigan State, Washington and Boston College (in fact, both of Washington State's touchdown receptions were the result of one-on-one jump balls)…Walls surrendered an inordinate amount of touchdown receptions – of varying length – last season…Blanton appeared tentative at times, especially without definite safety help behind him; he was surprisingly soft as a tackler after the catch, especially early in the season…the trio as a whole missed several pre-snap checks (resulting in more than a few trips to the bench)…the next double-move Banks sees will be his first and the common ploy has burned Irish newbies in the past (Slaughter vs. MSU last season for a touchdown)…Wood has the look of a future playmaker, but at 5'10" 180, he'd be overmatched if pressed into action vs. the receiving corps from Michigan State, Stanford, Pittsburgh, and USC…
Though he made plays as a nickel linebacker in the season's second half, Harrison Smith played at an unacceptable level as a free safety through six games last season…we're playing the dangerous projection game with Jamoris Slaughter: I feel he'll breakout, but am basing that on skill set and attitude, not video evidence – many felt the same about Smith entering 2009…Zeke Motta appears quick for a linebacker in short zone coverage, but might not be fluid/fast enough to turn and run with quality tight ends as a SS…Dan McCarthy is completely untested entering his junior season...safety depth is on shaky ground; it's essential a fifth viable body is added to the practice mix. Such a player would then be one injury away from the two-deep depth chart.
Entering AugustThe veteran cornerback trio of Walls/Gray/Blanton is unlikely to be challenged by Banks and Wood this season. Likewise, I'd be shocked if Slaughter lost his free safety job at any point. The key to the group is the play of Smith, which could range from borderline all-star to crippling as it did at times last season.
Look for each of the four safeties to see significant time at some point over the course of the season (in a variety of defensive packages) and for a far different defensive backfield performance than the head-shaker the unit produced last fall.
Communication and leadership is the key. This unit needed a new dose of both after last year's disaster (one that should not be pinned solely on former backfield coach Corwin Brown…too many cooks spoiled the broth last fall).
I can't rank the unit any higher entering summer camp, due largely to the fact that I can't shed the sight of Greg Mathews, Blair White and Mark Dell, Keith Smith, Anthony McCoy and Damian Williams, Rich Gunnell, Jonathan Baldwin, et al torching the group last fall. In fact, I'm still not sure how things progressed so quickly from shaky, to bad, to worse, to utter chaos in three months.
You won't see that in the Irish secondary in 2010. But as the former head coach stated last August: "Don't tell me; show me."