Lo and Behold

Notre Dame's secondary will receive contributions from its entire allotment of scholarship athletes.

Chuck Martin likely knew what was coming.

Notre Dame websites and local news outlets had already referenced the departure of sophomore cornerback E.J. Banks prior to Wednesday morning's practice. Banks was either the 4th or 5th CB heading into August camp.

Now the unit was down to four, and with head coach Brian Kelly enjoying an off day from the media (he instructed his team to "answer all questions in Latin" in his stead), Martin was the man of the post-practice hour for all the wrong reasons.

"We're about 16 deep; 8 corners and 8 safeties," Martin joked when asked about the attrition, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the multiple walk-on players generally put to work in a college football practice.

"We're a little thin but sometimes that's a good thing. Kids know what they have to do – take care of their bodies, stay healthy, eat right."

Banks' departure means the Irish entered the week with four scholarship cornerbacks: Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and freshman Lo Wood.

Martin's game day mission this fall harkens to a scene from the classic Indiana basketball film Hoosiers.

Official (expecting a fifth player to join the Hickory basketball team on the court): "Coach, you're one short."
Head coach Norman Dale: "My team's on the floor."

Dale's four-player, shorthanded approach was intentional and discipline related. Back in the real world, Martin and Kelly will elicit aid from a name familiar to those around the program over the last five seasons.

"He's done well since he's been over there," Martin noted of 5th-year senior Barry Gallup, Jr., who moved from the wide receiver corps to the defensive backfield at an earlier juncture of the week. "He's a tough kid, he's quick. Obviously he's drinking through a fire hose right now," Martin added.

"But he's an older kid so he's not frazzled. His (attitude) is 'Hey, I'm going to go over there, take every rep I can get and see if I can keep battling to help this football team. I think he's excited; we're excited, so I think it's a good move."

Gallup has practiced as a running back and wide receiver over the last four years in South Bend. His greatest field contributions to date a team-best 53-yard kick return last September at Michigan and as a member of the nation's best kick coverage unit in 2008.

The learning curve for Gallup will be significant, and he's not expected to hold down a key role from the outset. Luckily for Martin and the Irish, the man in front of Gallup and the de facto No. 4 cornerback also ranks as one of the surprises of fall camp.

Respect – and aid – your elders

January enrollee Lo Wood impressed this observer with his aggressiveness in spring scrimmages. He appeared confident and knowledgeable, and I figured he'd be a heck of a No. 3 CB...in 2011.

The Irish have since lost two cornerbacks: Wood's fellow early enrollee Spencer Boyd to transfer, and now Banks.

Assuming injuries don't befall the Irish secondary over the next four months, the two-deep depth chart appears set, and Wood's ascension has played a major part.

"We're getting unbelievable consistent effort out of him," Martin said of Wood. "Through five days, Lo Wood right now is trying to do it 'right.'

"Now he isn't doing it right because he's a fifth day freshman. But he is trying to do it right every single snap – and maybe its because he's a fifth day freshman – he hasn't figured out some of his own thought processes and he's just trying to blend, but maybe that's an advantage.

"His approach to the game is absolutely what a coach is looking for," Martin continued. "Now will that approach last the next four years? I don't know. But if he continues that same approach he'll not only be the best player he can be, but he'll be teaching older guys how to prepare and how to practice. So from that standpoint he's been really, really impressive."

5th year senior and position leader Darrin Walls has been impressed with the precocious freshman as well.

"I feel like Lo's getting better every day," Walls said. "We watch tape and if he does something wrong he works at it. He comes out and tries to fix that mistake he made in the next practice. That's one good sign of someone who's willing to be coached.

"With that the sky's the limit for him. He can be as good as he wants to be. With him coming out here and improving every day that's a good sign for us."

Walls struggled intermittently last season, allowing big plays and touchdowns at a rate incongruous to his talent and experience. He knows it. He accepts it, and he's prepared accordingly.

"There's a lot of plays especially last year that I watched where I say 'What could I have done better on this play?'" Walls noted yesterday.

"Especially the Michigan play, the last touchdown. That was all me. My eyes didn't transfer from quarterback to man. Knowing that, that's not going to happen again."

Not as easy as 1-2-3

Walls is one player Irish fans are sure to see take the field early and often when the season kicks off September 4 vs. Purdue.

Then again, so is Gary Gray. And Robert Blanton. And each of the four scholarship safeties.

"You guys love that depth chart," Martin joked when asked for the latest developments in the hotly contested secondary. "We have eight guys (four CB/four S) that right now are going to play a ton. Who goes on the field first? If you don't think RJ (Blanton), Gary Gray, and Darrin Walls are going to play all the football they would ever want in a million years this year – and more – they're going to be on the special teams (too).

"It's not about who's starting and who's backing up. It's: can we get them all to the physical condition level that they can play 12 games at Notre dame and play special teams at Notre Dame and get through a 12-game season. The least of my concerns is who's first who's second...they're all first in my mind."

Joining the cornerback quartet are safeties Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Dan McCarthy and Zeke Motta. As you'd expect, Martin isn't sure of the unit's pecking order, nor, apparently, does it matter.

"He said day-to-day? That's really minute-to-minute," Martin noted of Coach Kelly's assertion of the fluidity regarding the safety depth chart. "You have McCarthy, you have Zeke, you have Harrison – Harrison's probably had the most experience, which isn't a whole lot (as a true safety, not as a linebacker, a role he occupied in 2008 and in the second half of 2009).

"And then you add a different scheme, so we're counting on all four. We have four starters back there. Who ends up being 1-2? That's not important to me. And I think we have them conditioned to that. They're less concerned coming into camp with 'Am I going to win the starting job?'"

"We're going to play all of them. If you watched our practice today and saw how many reps those guys got and watched our special teams – (shaking his head) – those guys aren't worried about how much they're going to play. They're worried about being in good enough condition to get through."

A full day's work was evident on the face of accepted starter Jamoris Slaughter. The junior stood with beads of perspiration collecting on his face a solid 20 minutes after practice as the media throng descended upon the team's defensive backs.

Slaughter, a message board favorite and the pick of this writer as the backfield's impact player as the season progresses, remains primarily at free safety, but noted that the staff ensures each safety knows the requirements of both safety positions.

His position coach's assessment mirrored that of his cohorts':

"Depends on the minute," Martin said of Slaughter's camp progress. "He's a physical player; he's an aggressive player. He's not a bad cover guy; he's not a bad run support guy, but again: lack of experience, lack of knowledge...

"So (Slaughter's) is just staying confident and focused; learning about offenses and systems but its a roller-coaster ride for guys that really haven't played as much."

Walls, Gray and Blanton do not fall into that category. With 76 games and 40 career starts among them, the trio has the necessary experience to hit the field running in the opener.

"He has the experience, the game is a little slower for him," Martin noted of Walls. "He's not as antsy about some things because he's been through a lot of the fire, and had some ups and had some downs. Like all of us. We all grow from winning and losing.

"We're expecting big things," Martin continued of his most experienced player. "He's a talented kid, he's a smart kid, I think he's got the intelligence and God-given ability to be (a key part of the defense). He's a really focused kid."

Brian Kelly's philosophy is 'Next Man In.' Its an approach that puts no single player above the team. No one is irreplaceable. No injury or defection will deter the team from its ultimate goal.

For Martin, a former All-America safety with 18 years of coaching experience to his credit, a new mantra has emerged, at least for his cozy position group.

"There aren't that many 'next men' so they're all in," Martin joked. "At corner, everybody's in."

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