One year after returning to his hometown Pittsburgh for personal reasons, Darrin Walls endured three months of personal and team-wide struggle on the gridiron.
He was hardly the worst defensive player on an underperforming defense, but he certainly wasn't the best. The latter was expected of him by many, at least in what appeared to be a formidable and deep secondary.
With 32 games played to his credit, and as the only member of the Irish team to play in a BCS bowl, Walls ranks as the dean of the Irish secondary. Like the rest of his backfield mates, he has some unfinished business to tend to on Saturdays.
"Last year I didn't play too well," Walls admitted in the spring. "I'm excited for the opportunity to get back out here and play another year; to really try to improve on the negatives and make them into positives."
Another year, another systemFrom a sheer talent standpoint, Walls ranks as the most likely defender to rediscover his prior form (or develop to the level he expected) under the guidance of a new, cohesive regime. He can run, he can hit – or could hit – as his two forced fumbles as a true sophomore in 2007 can attest, and he'll enter the fall playing the familiar role of field cornerback, one he's manned for (now) four different systems and three different defensive backfield coaches, over his collegiate career.
"Its funny because we (the DBs) joke about how all of our DB coaches are different, but similar in that they're all insane and funny," Walls joked of former tutors Bill Lewis and Corwin Brown and current head man Chuck Martin. "We laugh about it. They're really good guys and the they teach techniques that they've prepared their whole lives."
The experienced Walls looks the part (he glides, the majority of the defense merely runs), and more important, earned the confidence of his new head coach during a spring period that was part boot camp, part job audition for the 80-plus participants.
"He's had a really good three days…really good," said Brian Kelly in mid-April.
Facing a potentially dominant receiver such as teammate Michael Floyd in practice every day is a good measuring stick for the senior corner, who can also draw from battles vs. the likes of current NFL talent Calvin Johnson in 2006 and future pro Jonathan Baldwin among other over 22 career starts.
Should Walls maintain his current hold on the starting role throughout the season and bowl game, he'll finish his Irish career with 35 starts (45 games played) – the highest number for a full-time cornerback since Allen Rossum left campus following the 1997 season.
Career Starts on the Corner: Irish players who have made 30-plus starts on the corner over the last three decades (1980-present):
- Stacey Toran 42 (1980-83)
- Allen Rossum 35 (1994-97)
- Shane Walton 34 (1999-02)
- Todd Lyght 33 (1987-90)
- Vontez Duff 33 (2000-03)
- Pat Ballage *33(1982-85): Ballage made 22 starts at cornerback before moving to safety as a senior in '85.
- Troy Wilson 32 (1984-87)
- Mike Richardson 30 (2003-06)
- Terrail Lambert 30 (2006-2008)
Note: Bobby Taylor (29 starts) and Tom Carter (28 starts) both declared for the NFL Draft following their junior seasons.
The 2010 Irish cornerback unit will rely heavily on its experienced trio of Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton, with two young backups (E.J. Banks and Lo Wood) waiting in the wings. For the group to be at its best in 2010, Walls will have reach the level expected of him following his breakout 2007 sophomore season.
"I think we're all taking it in well. We've gotten closer as a group and progressed," he said in the spring. "Just come in and do what they tell us to do and try to make ourselves better every day."
Walls 2007: 12 games/11 starts, 32 tackles (including 2.5 for loss), 2 forced fumbles, 9 pass breakups, 1 interception, 1 73-yard touchdown.
Walls 2009: 12 games/8 starts, 63 tackles (including one for loss), 6 pass breakups, 1 interception.
Walls at his Best in 2009
- Michigan State: Walls rebounded from a rough contest to record a key pass breakup: leading 33-30 with 5:18 remaining, Spartans QB Kirk Cousins targeted Walls for a quick stop route to wide receiver B.J. Cunningham. Walls expertly broke on the ball and nearly intercepted the sideline pass – it's a catch he'll have to make (rather than knock down) this season to reach his potential as a corner.
- Purdue: Walls recovered after being beaten off the line to make a diving 4th down interception (it could have been caught by the receiver) to stifle a Boilermakers drive at the Irish 20-yard line with 7:34 remaining.
- Washington: With the Irish leading 37-30 in overtime, Walls combined with Blanton for perfect coverage vs. a route that plagued the secondary for the entire season: wheel route from the slot receiver. Walls had lock down coverage on the wheel-route's accompanying slant pattern.
- Pittsburgh: Early in the 2nd Quarter with the Panthers facing 3rd and 2 from midfield, Walls broke up Bill Stull's square-in pass to WR Jonathan Baldwin from a trailing position. It was a tremendous play by the Irish senior CB to cover the huge target on a deep in-route. Later, on the first play of the 4th Quarter, Stull used play-action to bootleg into the right side but his comeback route to Baldwin was again broken up by an aggressive Walls.
Walls moments to forget from 2009
- Michigan: With the Wolverines facing 3rd and 12 at their own 19-yard line, Walls easily diagnosed a go route by wide receiver Greg Mathews. Running stride for stride and in position to make the interception, Walls took a false step as Mathews made his leap. The result was a 40-yard reception, momentum to the home team, and a 7-0 Michigan lead seven plays later. The play served as a portent for the '09 season.
Walls later surrendered the game-winning score on an apparent miscommunication with safety Harrison Smith.
- Michigan State: Walls was worked over by Spartans wide receiver Blair White on a 17-yard post-corner route touchdown that gave Michigan State the lead with under 10 minutes remaining.
- Washington: Walls was shoved to the turf out of bounds by Huskies QB Jake Locker at the tail end of a 14-yard run. Two plays later with the Huskies facing 2nd and Goal, Walls was beaten on a too-easy square-in for an 8-yard touchdown.
- Pittsburgh: QB Bill Stull and star receiver Jonathan Baldwin beat Walls for a 52-yard gain down the right sideline to begin the second half. Baldwin leapt over Walls who had perfect position on the play but barely got off his feet to contend Baldwin for the ball in the air. Baldwin beat Walls for a diving 36-yard touchdown though that play was directly related to the brilliance of the wide receiver rather than poor coverage by Walls.