Cup Runneth Over: Defensive Backs

The final installment of our pre-season segment offer a few thoughts on the team's defensive backs and defensive special teams.

Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers

Tight Ends, O-Line, Offensive Special Teams

Defensive Linemen and Linebackers

Safeties

Having four safeties isn't a problem; three on the other hand…The Irish obviously can't afford a lingering injury (more than the conclusion of a contest) to Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta or Danny McCarthy: one enters September (D-Mac/hamstring) at less than full strength while Slaughter suffered a mild groin injury – a killer for a defensive back that must constantly turn and run with receivers…Do the Irish have a contingency plan if one of the quartet were to go down for an extended period? Former WR Barry Gallup – the team's new No. 5 cornerback – is way too small to play the position vs. the first six opponents…Likely emergency safeties include freshman WR Daniel Smith; freshman running back Cameron Roberson and walk-on safety Michael Garcia – a solid 6'2" 200 pounds…

Harrison Smith has won over the new coaching staff; it will be interesting to see if he's improved downfield as he's always been an effective athlete near the line of scrimmage…Smith's SS position (also referred to as "boundary safety") is a much better fit for him than were the strong side linebacker or free safety roles of the past…Not many would guess Smith – with two seasons of playing time – is the returning team leader in tackles-for-loss…At 6'0" 195-pounds, Jamoris Slaughter is widely regarded as the secondary's best hitter; hopefully he'll resemble former FS David Bruton as a deep-ball centerfielder as well…Slaughter's season at corner last year should help him over his next three seasons as the secondary's last man of defense and signal caller… Smith (2); Slaughter (3); Motta (3) and McCarthy (3) will populate the Irish two-deep for the next two seasons, with either Chris Badger or an incoming freshman joining the remaining threesome for 2012…

The five best Irish defenses of the past 25 years (1988, 1989, 1992, 1993 and 2002) possessed the program's five best safety pairings over that span as well…Only the 2005-06 (Zbikowski/Ndukwe) and 2008 (Bruton/McCarthy) teams featured a quality safety pairing but a faulty pass defense…Slaughter dropped two picks in the Blue Gold Game (after expertly breaking on the ball); let's hope it was due to the wet conditions…To borrow a phrase from the former head coach: Zeke Motta is one big muchacho in the secondary…Dan McCarthy was the first defensive player singled out by Brian Kelly during spring ball (the "McCarthy kid can tackle")…I can think of 12-15 ultra-athletic, big plays Harrison Smith has made near the line of scrimmage but can only remember one deep in the secondary (Smith helped Kyle McCarthy clean up the Washington receiver to win in overtime last year)… Who's the No. 4 safety if McCarthy's hamstring gets tweaked in practice this week?

Cornerbacks

Assuming he can handle the task when called upon, freshman Lo Wood's opportunity as the unquestioned No. 4 cornerback this season could do wonders for his 4-year career – as well as greatly improve Notre Dame's secondary when both Gray and Blanton move on after next season…Wood is reportedly physical, knowledgeable, in excellent shape, and a hard-worker – he could run a 4.7 and still be a solid collegiate corner with those attributes…How can Darrin Walls have just two career interceptions heading into his senior season? Is Gary Gray really that close to No. 3 status? Or are the trio of Walls, Gray and Robert Blanton merely 1A 1B and 1C at this point? Gray will fill the role of Kyle McCarthy from 2009: the guy that comes up with the clutch ankle tackle when a ‘back breaks through the linebacker level of the Irish defense – let's hope this occurs far less than it last fall…Gray's easily the most physical cornerback, though Blanton was a very aggressive, hard-nosed defender two years ago…Bob Diaco described Gray as "rugged" when asked about the senior on Media Day; I liked Gray's aggressiveness before he won the job last season and how he bounced back vs. USC after getting torched in the first period…

Walls is a gazelle when he backpedals, turns and runs; he needs to have his best season since 2007 if the Irish secondary is to greatly improve after a poor effort last year…I can count five TD off the top of my head that Walls allowed last season…One year ago today, most Irish fans thought Robert Blanton would be the team's next great cornerback…At his best, Blanton uses his hands to deter receivers inside and jumps short routes with the best of them; At his worst? See 1-on-1 deep balls last season…If Blanton is confident in his assignments, I guarantee at least a solid junior season…Among the biggest surprises on last season's disappointing defense was the play of Walls – the year away from the team did him no favors…We'll know how much Walls has improved (actually returned to sophomore year form) after watching the first few deep sideline passes thrown in his direction in September…

Cornerback eligibility after this season: Walls (graduated/expired); Blanton (1); Gray (1); Wood (3); E.J. Banks (3)…Banks' return to the team, sans scholarship, as a Scout team member this season is a nice story; its doubly difficult to eat a semester of tuition at Notre Dame when a scholarship – in some form – has been assumed since the student-athlete was a junior in high school…No Irish defense in my lifetime has been close to solid without two reliable cornerbacks; the best example: 1988-89 were great with two (Lyght and Smagala) while '90 and '91 were awful (just Lyght in '90; just Carter in '91); then '92 and '93 were tremendous (Carter and Taylor; Taylor and Lane)…Duff and Walton (2002) were easily the program's best pair since 1993…Duff is the last Irish football player to convert from offense to become a top-notch defensive back; others that come to mind: Jeff Burris, Tom Carter, Todd Lyght and Pat Terrell

Which of the four 2010 CB will handle opposing slot receivers, a position that absolutely destroyed Notre Dame last season? Has defensive backs coach Chuck Martin been able to improve the DBs approach defending the 50/50 ball? Luckily for Irish fans, Gary Gray plays much bigger than his stature...Will Lo Wood become the No. 3 CB by season's end? If so, that would likely mean another dud season from one of the talented trio of starters…

Kickoffs, Kick Coverage and Punt Coverage

Senior linebacker Steve Paskorz is necessary cog on the coverage units; his knee injury is relevant to September at the least…After a poor start to his career, freshman punter Ben Turk excelled in the 2009 season's final two weeks – according to his position coach, its apparently carried over through August camp…Expect a much better punting effort by the Irish this season after last year's two-punter/nine-game debacle…Notre Dame's punt team was comically bad in the last-minute win in Purdue…

David Ruffer (2) and Nick Tausch (0) managed just two touchbacks on kick-offs last season; graduated scholarship kicker Ryan Burkhart had one in 2008, giving the Irish just three touchbacks in their last 132 kick-offs…Still shaking my head…Total touchbacks by Irish opponents over last three seasons: 19…Unreal…I had Notre Dame's kick coverage unit – the nation's best in 2008 – as the team's third-best unit entering last season; they finished last on my post-season list…Notre Dame covered just eight punts last season, due largely to the fact that the team's punters were dreadful; four of the eight did significant damage.

On Tap Monday AM: Our 2010 Season Prediction column.


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