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Stepping up… The Secondary

Feb 23, 2010, 7:30 AM EST

If you missed our first two installments of “Stepping Up,” where we talked about the offensive line and the wide receivers, be sure to check them out.

It wasn’t hard to identify the secondary as a massive problem area last season. A perceived area of strength going into the season, the Irish defensive backs were a massive disappointment, failing to make many big plays, and far too often getting beat for one instead. The veteran cornerbacks that many had high hopes for disappointed almost to a man, as veterans like Rasheon McNeil, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton all had major lapses in coverage, and played well below expectations last season. Meanwhile, the transition of Harrison Smith back to safety was a disaster, and the combination of run-support heavy Kyle McCarthy and the enigmatic play of Sergio Brown left the Irish defense without a capable centerfielder, something that spells disaster for a team trying to play a Cover 2 scheme.

The returning secondary is truly a mixed bag. On the edges, the Irish only lose Rasheon McNeil from the cornerback rotation, returning Walls, Blanton, and Gray, the three corners that played the most minutes in the defensive backfield. At safety, the Irish lose their top two contributors in McCarthy and Brown, in addition to backup Ray Herring, though they do get Harrison Smith back after a lost season spent transitioning between safety and outside linebacker.

While poor pass defense can hardly be blamed solely on defensive backs, corners and safeties are the last line of defense and will always be the ones on the hook when a pass play goes for big yardage. Regardless of the ineptitude of the pass rush, there was still no excuse for a secondary that gave up way too many explosive plays and made a habit of giving up career days to opposing quarterbacks. 

While new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin have their hands full, they’ve got a group of players that come with a lot of talent. Every cornerback on the roster was a well-regarded recruiting prospect, and they’ve all got plenty of experience to lean on. And while Harrison Smith’s maligned minutes are the only ones that truly return at safety, a clean slate might be the best thing for everyone involved.

The Irish not only have to replace minutes, they need to replace the bad memories of a defensive season gone awry. Here are the key losses, important returning players, and the defensive backs that need to step it up.

KEY LOSSES:

If there was a highlight for the Irish secondary, it was Kyle McCarthy. McCarthy was the epitome of a program player, a guy that paid his dues on the way up and played two stand-out seasons as a starter. While I wasn’t as high on his tackling prowess as my colleagues in the broadcast booth, McCarthy’s obscene two-season stat-line made him the only Notre Dame defensive back to eclipse 100 tackles in a season, and he achieved that feat twice. McCarthy also chipped in a team-high five interceptions.

RETURNING STARTERS:

The time is now for cornerback Darrin Walls. There is no more waiting for the former blue-chip cornerback. He’s back for a fifth-year at Notre Dame and hopefully will blossom under the regime change. Robert Blanton also returns, likely humbled from a sophomore season that had to be disappointing after such a strong freshman campaign. Gary Gray will likely be fighting for a starting job as well after wrestling one away during the second half of last season. Gray made a few big plays, but Irish fans hope he’ll bring a new confidence to the field as a senior. At safety, Brian Kelly already mentioned that Harrison Smith has been impressive during offseason workouts and will return to safety after being flip-flopped around the past two seasons.

STEPPING UP:

While every position is a clean slate for the Irish, no group needed it more than the secondary. Last year, the problems seemed to be between the ears more so than athletically. The secondary never seemed to master the new principles of the blitzing Cover 2 scheme that Jon Tenuta employed, and too often the defense was just plain beat on coverage that was fundamentally puzzling. For the Irish defense to play up to their skill level, here are a few guys that’ll need to play big:

Harrison Smith: Nobody needed a regime change like Smith did. The Tennessee native had a rocky season that saw him become the ire of many Irish fans, but enters the season with two years of eligibility remaining. Moving Smith from undersized linebacker to safety expected to play deep coverage is a lot to ask of a young player, especially one that likely relied on a lot of gambling to compete against players that sometimes outweighed him by 100 pounds.

Jamoris Slaughter: Slaughter is the type of guy better classified as a football player than either a cornerback or safety. Slaughter was given a shot late in the year to win a job in the secondary after others played their way out of contention, but he never truly seized the moment. That said, the previous coaching staff believed he was a sound tackler with good speed and ball skills, and has to think that a job in either nickel or as a starting safety is a very real possibility.

Zeke Motta: Motta is a guy that made an immediate impact on special teams. He’s also a jumbo-sized safety that has great football instincts and his eyes on a starting safety position. While I’ve got no idea if Motta can be a guy that plays great in space, if his play on special teams is any indication, he’ll be flying around the field looking to make tackles if he’s given his chance.

Dark Horses: Expect another McCarthy to start working his way onto the field, as Danny is reportedly the better athletes of the two brothers. Fifth-year senior Leonard Gordon should contribute as a safety or corner (Thanks, Zach.). From a physical standpoint, early enrollee Chris Badger looks ready to go on special teams at the very least. E.J. Banks redshirted last year, but might be ready to take a shot at a job in the secondary as well. 

  1. robertg - Mar 1, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    1. now, back to the futures of college football and notre dame football.
    2. we announced right here that pete carroll and his staff would not be back at usc for the 2011 season, but would be forced to flee usc for the nfl.
    3. we made that happen way ahead of schedule.
    4. the trial of the usc rules violations before the ncaa infractions committee did indeed take place from 2/19/2010 through 2/21/2010. we had the pleasure of observing petey and mikey appear in person, along with many other usc luminaries, at these trial proceedings, to attempt, without success, to rebut the evidence presented against them and usc’s crooked football and basketball programs and athletic department.
    5. they did haul in a ton of documents which the ncaa infractions committee is currently examining again before they publicly issue exactly the sanctions that we predicted.
    6. actually, by showing up at the 3 day trial and giving false testimony and fabricated documents to the ncaa infractions commiteee, usc only made the situation worse for themselves.
    7. yes, the tons of documents and the additional testimony did delay the public announcement of the sanctions against usc for a short time beyond the 2/21/2010 date which we predicted,based upon our sources, but did not change the nature of those sanctions.
    8. obviously, getting programs that cheat sanctioned by the ncaa after nothing was done for all of these years is great news for notre dame’s student athletes who also play football.
    9. does the fact that the ncaa is finally starting to act on some of these rules violations mean that we trust the ncaa or that we will cease our civil litigations against the ncaa or that we think that these sanctions are sufficient? absolutely not.
    10. usc already has in place kiffen and a staff of pete carroll clones ready to continue cheating as before with new names and faces only.
    11. that is why we are following up in the civil courts against petey and mikey and the others.
    12. if we did not do so, the ncaa would never move quickly enough to prevent usc’s replacement plan from being implemented and notre dame’s student athletes would continue to face usc’s and other schools’ teams of full time ffotball players with zero academic obligations for many seasons to come, along with crooked conference officials.
    13. before the 2011 season begins, all of those corrupt things will be history.
    14. beginning in 2011, notre dame’s student athletes will be able to take the fields against real student athletes frrom opposing schools who also follow the rules with honest high tech offioiating systems and with coaches who really understand and love notre dame.
    15. we simply never give up or throw in the towel no matter what the opposition ever throws at us.
    16. we always prevail, not just because we are very good at what we do and gather loads of evidence before we proceed seriously with any project, but because we always pick just causes.
    GO IRISH!!!

  2. terryb101 - Mar 2, 2010 at 1:55 PM

    one thing is certain, if they dont learn HOW TO TACKLE things are not going to get any better. the tackling last year was patheic. especially…mr.harrison smith…and i dont need to hear about how he is outweighted or yada yada yada. he plays defense, the number one item for playing defense is,,,wait for It,,TACKLING

  3. irishfan1123 - Mar 2, 2010 at 8:37 PM

    Good, sound tackling has been missing from the Irish for quite some time (and for a lot of football teams in general). We need more of the Kapron Lewis-Moore tackle seen in the Stepping Up: Defensive Line pic. They taught us in rugby that a tackle should be “cheek to cheek,” your head needs to be right at their hip, and wrap their legs. If their legs are tied up, they’re not going anywhere.
    Also, I was doing some cleaning up, and I found an Observer (student newspaper) from the Nevada weekend. I looked at the match-ups and it listed the Irish secondary as a strength for the Irish, and from what I remember from that game, they had at least 2 interceptions, so it did appear to be a position of strength at that time. It’s been said before, but pressure on the quarterback from the d-line and linebackers would have helped the secondary a great deal. Any quarterback with that much time to throw won’t make very many mistakes. The defense as a unit needs to get better, and fundamentals will go a long way in helping ensure that what should have only been a 5-15 yard gain doesn’t turn into a 20+ yard gain that we saw way too many times last year.

  4. Sgt. Moon - Mar 2, 2010 at 10:48 PM

    Robert, let’s assume for a moment you are an attorney. That’s really nothing to brag about. Do you write your legal briefs the same way you write your posts? Do you confuse the hell out of everyone in court too?
    Everyone you talk about is corrupt, dishonest and evil. Have you ever thought that maybe you are the problem?
    You have accused me of drinking booze and posting fraudulent personal attacks against you. Both of these accusations are untrue.
    I have simply asked you a couple of questions, and I am still waiting for the answers.
    I have asked you twice if you would like to make a wager regarding the return of Charlie Weis for the 2011 season. I have not received your answer. PUT UP OR SHUT UP!!

  5. Sgt. Moon - Mar 2, 2010 at 10:57 PM

    I apologize to all the people who post on this site for taking up your time and space regarding my comments back to Robert.
    I will in the future try to limit my comments to ND football.
    Sometimes I can’t pass up what he posts…… Even though they don’t make any sense.

  6. Jake - Mar 3, 2010 at 2:37 PM

    No problem. It’s hard not to respond to his rhetorical ramblings.

  7. robertg - Mar 3, 2010 at 11:31 PM

    1. we congratulate every student athlete on notre dame’s mens’ basketball team and coach brey and his staff on their fine win today over uconn.
    2. the usual suspects at the so called notre dame fan sites, including blue and gold, had started one of their typical hate and fire the coach campaigns against coach brey and his staff and notre dame’s student athletes and had even reported online fraudulent results of one of their polls, supposedly of notre dame fans, trying to create the false impression that an overwhelming majority of notre dame fans were in favor of firing coach brey and his staff.
    3. that hate and fire coach brey campaign has been stopped before it could even get any real traction, just as the hate campaign against charlie weis and his staff should have been, would have been if purcell and swarbrick, and jenkins had not violated the agreements reached in 2005 with certain key notre dame alums who excelled as student athletes also playing football at notre dame, in the nfl, and in their business and personal lives after notre dame, before charlie and his staff were hired with funds provided by those key notre dame alums, not one of whom was even consulted by purcell, swarbrick, or jenkins before charlie and his staff were illegally fired.
    4. we are informed, by our sources, that the revenues from notre dame fans flowing to irish illustrated,to blue and gold,to irish eyes aka scout.com,to the irish sports daily, and to the south bend tribune are falling very rapidly, as they certainly should.
    5. we understand why sgt moon and jake and their friends have no responses to our detailed post other than their usual grunts and still hiding behind their phony internet identities.
    6. when their times come,after we have finished with many higher priority matters in the civil courts, sgt moon and jake and their friends will get their opportunities to attempt to defend themselves in the civil courts in front of real judges and juries and we will report the outcomes of those civil actions, along with their real names, backgrounds, and hidden agendas.
    7. in the absence of any more fraudulent personal attacks on me and on us, we will report our progress on our national litigation project to clean the corruption out of college football and college sports and out of notre dame, with the usual online case links and other online links to support every statement that we make.
    8. we encourage anyone who has any evidence that might prove that we are incorrect or mistaken to post that evidence and online links and we will actually check out every one of those, but we cannot check out grunts and naked opiinions not supported by any facts or evidence.
    9. we also welcome anyone who wants to disagree with us to do so, even if these disagreements are not supported by any data or evidence.
    10. free speech is free speech. however, sgt moon and jake and their friends, along with our detailed replies with case citations and online links, provide clear guidelines for anyone who wants them the distinctions between free speech and posts which cross the lines and become civilly actionable in the civil courts.
    11. the same rules apply to us. if we could not prove in the civil courts the truth of every fact which we have posted about certain individuals and entitities, such as petey and mikey and the usc football program and the ncaa, then those persons and entities should be suing us in the civil courts.
    12. after all, we never try to hide behind phony internet identities and we have plenty of assets.
    13. we have dared petey and mikey to take us on in the civil courts.
    14. for obvious reasons, they never even tried and petey and his staff did have to flee usc for the nfl.
    15.with respect to other persons and entities whose names we have mentioned in our posts, we also dare them to try us out in the civil courts if they think that we do not have the evidence to prove the truth of our statements about them.
    16. after all, in the end, the only opinions on these issues that really matter are those of honest judges and juries all over the us who have and will make decisions based upon admissible evidence only and not based on any statements about alleged public opinion polls or internet posts from sgt moon or jake and their friends or the departed from notre dame central sot and his usc friends.
    17. we will have very few posts about any notre dame football games during the 2010 season.
    18. however, in the meantime, so that innocent notre dame fans do not continue to get misled, conned, ripped off, and needlessly disappointed by the pay for phony proganda so called notre dame fan sites, we will report on our progress towards honest officiating and rules enforcement systems for college football and for notre dame football which will be in place before the 2011 season begins.
    19. no one has to read our posts or any other posts either at notre dame central or anywhere else.
    20. however, out information, unlike the false propaganda put out by irish illustrated, blue and gold, the south bend tribune, is free for any real notre dame fan who wants to verify those facts with the online and other links we always provide.
    GO IRISH!!!

  8. The Mitz - Mar 4, 2010 at 3:20 PM

    A famous quotation by Bertrand Russell gives his interpretation of megolamania: “The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved.

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