Catching up with… Shane Walton

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One of my favorite Irish football players past or present is Shane Walton. Walton’s story has been well documented. Recruited as a soccer player to Notre Dame, Shane was given the chance to walk-on during spring practice. After a handful of practices, coach Bob Davie and the defensive staff knew they had someone special, and the rest is history. Shane was named a consensus All-American cornerback during the magical 2002 season, the Irish’s first consensus All-American since Bobby Taylor in 1994. His 2001 season included two interceptions, one a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown against Purdue quarterback Drew Brees.

It was great catching up with a former classmate, who now lives and works back in his hometown of San Diego. Here’s more from Shane Walton.

ON BEING RECRUITED TO NOTRE DAME:

I wasn’t recruited really at all to play football. My only offer was to play wide receiver at Fresno State. It was actually my soccer coach, Mike Berticelli, who got me my tryout. He originally wanted me to play soccer for two years, and I’d play spring football for my freshman and sophomore years, and make a decision on what I wanted to do then. I don’t know if he thought I’d be a good football player or not, but he was actually the guy who spoke to Coach Davie and the staff, and got me a tryout with the football team in the spring. After three or four practices in the spring, Coach Davie saw that I could play, and he offered me a scholarship.

ON THE TRANSITION FROM SOCCER TO FOOTBALL:

There were parallels between the sports, but I basically had to reprogram my entire body. I went from being able to run fast for a long duration of time to having to add 25 pounds of muscle and being built more for quick bursts. That process took about a year to really transform. That was the toughest challenge. The parallels from soccer to football were tremendous, especially as a cornerback. Being able to read plays and what’s developing, and the balance it takes to play soccer, that’s incredible. The body control really helped me to be a good corner.

ON HIS MAGICAL SENIOR SEASON:

There are three types of people that play sports. There are people who don’t mind losing. There are people who don’t like losing. And then there are people like me, who hate and despise losing. I always expected to win, so when I lost, or when the team lost, I was devastated. That was the mentality of the entire defense. We never expected to lose. We didn’t care what the situation was. I think that mindset permeated throughout the entire team.

ON BEING NAMED AN ALL-AMERICAN:

To be honest, it didn’t really hit me until I was at the All-American things with all the other big time players. It’s actually crazy, I never had a chance to sit back and look at what I accomplished until I was done playing football. I remember my mother and my friends being so proud of me, and I was like “what’s the big deal, this is just what I do.”  You know, you write for NBC, other people go to work and climb telephone polls, and we all just try to do the best that we can. And that’s what I did. It just so happens that what society likes is athletics, so I’m in the limelight. It never really dawned on me. I never changed who I was, it just was something that I happened to do, and I was blessed to have a skillset that made me a decent corner.

ON TAKING DREW BREES TO THE HOUSE:

I used to love playing against Purdue, because that’s when the DBs and corners had the most chance to succeed and shine. We knew coming into the game that Purdue was going to put the ball up 30-35 times. That was always a game I marked in the calendar that was fun.

As for the play, we were in man coverage, and my guy just ran basically a four to five yard cross. The inside linebacker made him bump over the top of him and that gave me the chance to get in front of him, and I just hopped in front of the pass. I don’t think Brees ever even saw me. I just stepped in front of it and took it to the house.

ON GOING IN THE 5TH ROUND OF THE NFL DRAFT:

NFL coaches are egomaniacs. They feel like they can’t coach you to run a 4.3 forty, to bench press whatever, to jump out of the stadium, but they feel they can make you into a player. That’s why you hear of guys who have never done anything in college and they become great players, but you also hear of guys who were supposed to be great, got drafted high, but they never do anything. The NFL drafts on potential. They don’t draft on what matters. They don’t draft on heart, intelligence, because there’s no real way to measure those. They draft off stuff that they can see. But what I had was heart, desire, intellect, and instincts, but there’s no way to measure any of that.

ON A CAREER CUT SHORT:

I hurt my back in preseason. I just kept trying to fight through it. I was probably never over 80 percent at any time in my NFL career. I just remember playing against the Raiders, and I really tweaked my back, and I just kept fighting. They say, “You can’t make the club from the tub.” I was told to fight, to push through the injuries, that is was just sore and tightness. Then I remember we were playing Atlanta, and I couldn’t feel my left leg. I was running down the field and I had no control of my left leg. It was hitting up against my right leg. I remember getting yelled at for not sprinting down the field. They finally determined I was having back issues so they gave me epidurals in the back at the doctor, until I finally flew out to see a surgeon in Los Angeles. He told me I needed surgery 3 months ago. It was just bad business all the way around, and one of the reasons I’m happy I’m not in the NFL right now.

I had a ruptured disc. My disc exploded and spinal fluid leaked onto my nerves, damaging and almost killing my nerves that went to my left leg. I couldn’t lift my foot, couldn’t do a heal raise. If you pinched my left leg I couldn’t feel it. The leg shrunk an inch-and-a-half around. It was miserable. I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, couldn’t sit down for more than two minutes, all I could really do was lay down in bed.

I got put on IR for the rest of the season. I rehabbed back home and was trying to come back in St. Louis during the offseason, but still wasn’t healthy. They released me, then Pittsburgh picked me up for camp. I was out there for a couple weeks, and hurt my back again. I knew right there it was tough to bounce back. I had never had an injury that I couldn’t bounce back from, but this was the one that I couldn’t overcome.

ON DEALING WITH HIS CAREER BEING OVER:

It was tough for one reason. I would have rather been not good enough. I would’ve rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough to make the team. I was 80 percent and I still made an NFL team. That’s what kills me. In my heart and in my mind, I was picking up the game. I really thought that I was going to be one of the best playmakers in the NFL. That’s me having confidence in myself, because that’s what I thought I could do. Never knowing because of the injury is what’s tough. It’s like when a movie ends but they don’t tell you the ending. I’d have rather been cut because I wasn’t good enough, it’d be easier looking in the mirror.

ON THIS YEAR’S IRISH:

I follow them faithfully. As much as I hate saying this word, there’s potential. I feel like they have the guys there, they have the talent, they have the speed, they have the depth, but I don’t think they’re living up to their potential right now.

ON PLAYING WITHOUT MICHAEL FLOYD:

First off, I think Floyd is amazing. He’s a special player that only comes around every so often. But I do think, and I will always think this, it is still
Notre Dame and we still have
some of the greatest players to play college football on that team right now. So somebody needs to step up. If Rhema McKnight doesn’t go down and get hurt, we never know about Jeff Samardzija. Same thing now. The talent is there, and someone needs to step up and become a man.

ON CHOOSING NOTRE DAME:

There were three things I was looking for. I wanted to go to a great
academic institution. I wanted to go to a school with a great sports
program as well. I’m a competitor and I like to be able to compete at
the highest level. The third thing kind of tipped things in Notre
Dame’s favor. I’m a fan of history and tradition of schools, and Notre
Dame outweighed everyone else. I was basically down to Stanford and
Notre Dame. My mindset has always been that I played for my teammates
that were here in the huddle with me, but I also played with all the
people who wore the jersey before me. I don’t think you can say that
with a lot of schools, but at Notre Dame, that means something. 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister