Stepping up… The Secondary


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.


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.


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.


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. 

Kelly confident Robinson will rebound

Notre Dame v Florida State

Corey Robinson‘s season was already off to a slow start. And that was before a difficult night at Clemson. The junior receiver came into last weekend with only four catches, held out against UMass after a pregame tweak of his knee put a scare into the Irish.

Robinson’s knee checked out fine. But mentally, it appears that the sure-handed junior is struggling.

Just before halftime against the Tigers, Robinson failed to reel in a long catch that would’ve given the Irish a much-needed touchdown heading into half. Early in the fourth quarter, a high throw from DeShone Kizer on the Irish’s first failed two-point conversion play slid through Robinson’s hands. Made worse was a mental mistake by Robinson, the Irish needing to use one of their second half timeouts when the junior wasn’t on the field.

Coached hard on the sideline by Brian Kelly and coached up by his position coach Mike Denbrock (as we saw on both Showtime and Fighting Irish Media’s ICON), the staff is doing it’s best to get Robinson’s confidence back.

With some wondering if Robinson’s struggles should open the door for talented freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, Kelly talked about their belief that the junior will return to form.

“Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I believe in Corey. Corey’s got to believe in himself, and he will. He’s got to go attack the football. He’s letting the football come to him. He’s letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.”

There’s no better place to showcase that belief than against Navy. The Midshipmen don’t have a defender physically capable of matching up with the 6-foot-5 Robinson, who will likely face his share of single coverage with Will Fuller likely demanding safety help.

Then it’s just a matter of Robinson showing the hands and confidence that made him one of last year’s most consistent performers.

“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we’re going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make,” Kelly said. “So I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

Keenan Reynolds, Jamar Summers

The theme of this week’s game might very well be mutual respect. But if Notre Dame is going to get their season back on track, they’ll need to very quickly get past any sort of reverence they have for Ken Niumatalolo and the Navy Midshipmen and look for any way to beat them.

Sandwiched between showdowns against Clemson and USC, Navy comes to town, one of the below-the-radar unbeaten teams in the country. With option superstar Keenan Reynolds in the final year of a career that is already one of the most prolific in college football history, the Irish defense goes into triple-option mode for the second time in this young season, asked to once again find an answer for an attack that not many people have solved.

Helping us to prepare for the Midshipmen is the play-by-play voice of Navy athletics, Pete Medhurst. Covering Navy football since 1997, Pete was kind enough to get us ready for the 89th meeting between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy.

Hope you enjoy.


Lost in the misery Notre Dame fans feel after the Irish’s undefeated hopes washed away in Clemson last weekend, is that the Navy team coming to South Bend is really, really good. I know it’s early, but you’ve been covering the Midshipmen for a long time. Can you rank where this team stacks up compared to some of the others you’ve seen?

I think its the best overall Navy team, considering the play of both units right now and special teams as well. The defense is giving up  just 15 points a game, and based on the prowess of the offense, that’s going to lead to a lot of victories if you play at that level.


Is Keenan Reynolds the best triple-option QB in Navy history? As someone who has watched his career evolve, can you speak to his improvements as a quarterback and a player? How important has he been to the evolution of this program?

I believe production speaks for itself. Good health could make him the leading touchdown scorer of all-time in the sport. He’s a coach on the field. Speaks like a coach, has a want to get better. Each day is a mission for him and the unit to get better and they hold themselves to a high standard to meet each day, he’s the leader of that group.



Joining the American Conference was a huge decision, but one that looks to be paying dividends. Have you noticed a difference in the program now that they’re chasing a conference title?

Coaches say it is. They have been met with quality response on the road recruiting. We get to states that are important footprints for us and just adds another goal where our players can be rewarded for their hard work. The conference has been very, very, good so far this year.


Defensively, this game should stress Navy. Notre Dame’s big-play potential is the best of the Brian Kelly era. (The Irish already have more 50-plus yard touchdowns than they’ve had in any other season under Kelly.)

Takeaways and preventing big plays seem to be a tenet of a Buddy Green defense. Are those the big keys for the Midshipmen defensively?

No question this is by far the fastest team Notre Dame has ever had. I go all the way back to the great Lindsay Nelson days when I used to watch the Notre Dame football report every Sunday morning. They can attack you anywhere at anytime with several people. Double cover one, they have three others in the formation who can beat you any play. Brian has put together a great plan and his coaches have delivered great recruits to the program. Many teams can’t survive an injury to the QB, but they have.

Mids have turned teams over this year and that’s a huge key for any defense. With Dale Pehrson taking over the defense (note: Green is taking a sabbatical to recover from major neck surgery this season) those goals have not changed. Eleven guys getting to the football, ball comes out, you have a great chance to get it!


Notre Dame had success earlier this season against Georgia Tech, and Brian Kelly spent a gigantic portion of his offseason preparing for the triple-option, going as far as recruiting a walk-on option quarterback who runs an option-specific scout team.

Do you think the success the Irish defense had against Paul Johnson’s triple-option will help this weekend? Or do you see subtle, but important differences between what Ken Niumatalolo does than his predecessor?

Coach Kelly is a good football coach. After we beat them at the Meadowlands, 35-17, you sensed, he was going to work hard to find a solution because for them to achieve their goals, they have to beat us.

Im not sure how many huge differences their are in our two offenses, one though is the QB. His ability to get Navy into the right play is huge no matter how a team lines up. Defensive personnel has improved in a huge way for Notre Dame too. They have quality people who can run and get to the ball. Last couple have been barn burners. Hopefully Saturday can be the same.