The Last Line of Defense

After being ridiculed and dissected for years, Notre Dame’s secondary appears to be the deepest and most talented personnel group on the Irish team. In Walls, Lambert, McCarthy and Bruton the Irish return experience, speed and possibly the most talent since the 1993 team. But it’s not just the first team (for once) that has ND fans excited, its the combination of talent, experience and depth. Here’s how NDNation posters break down Notre Dame’s defensive backfield:

OK — by omahadomer

N.D. has some of the best experience and talent in the nation at cornerback (I didn’t think I’d live long enough to write that honestly). Walls has AA potential as a sophomore. He has good speed and technique and is excellent at locating the ball. Walls needs to improve in run support but did make headway last year. Lambert at the other corner probably has the best track speed on the team, which allows him to recover from his mistakes. He does occasionally struggle locating the ball. Gray had by all accounts an excellent spring and reportedly has talent on the order of Walls. McNeil also had an excellent spring and looked OK in spot duty last year. Those four will allow N.D. the flexibility of play nickel or dime without having to risk getting a burner on a safety.

At safety, Bruton probably has the best NFL potential of anyone likely to come out this year. He’s fast, tough and a tremendous athlete. Safety doesn’t have quite the experienced depth of CB, but is a positive situation. McCarthy is better in coverage than Zibby was, though isn’t yet the presence back there that Zibby was in terms of receivers fearing the big hit. As for depth, Harrison Smith was remarkable in the spring game and won defensive MVP honors. Gaines and Brown reportedly had good springs and it’s now or never for them if they are going to be major contributors.

Last line of defense by nddl99

The starters:
CB–Terrail Lambert
CB–Darrin Walls
FS–David Bruton
SS–Kyle McCarthy

Second group:
CB–Raeshon McNeil
CB–Gary Gray
S–Sergio Brown
S?–Harrison Smith

1. The first thing that strikes me is that the *second* group above could itself qualify as a more talented secondary than some starting groups we’ve had before (though, with very little overall experience). One of our biggest strengths this year is quality depth. This is a big deal, too. Picture this scenario: your starting CB goes down to injury, and in the next play the newbie is immediately torched by the opposing team. Like Corwin Brown said, one mistake in the secondary and the other band is playing its fight song. It’s a common occurence in college football, but I just don’t see that happening this year.

2. In addition, I expect to see all the players in the second group play in situational circumstances. In Harrison Smith’s case, the “situation” may well be the majority of the game. While he is nominally a safety, he took instruction part-time from both Corwin and Tenuta this summer so I expect him to play like more of a hybrid player — perhaps even like the apache position that was part of the original Minter installment 3 years ago.

3. The first group is both capable and dynamic. God help the opponent that manages to let the ball get in Terrail Lambert’s hands, because you aren’t going to catch him. He lacks the hip swivel and stop-on-a-dime instincts to be a first day NFL pick, but he is talented enough to make it to the next level if he has a productive year. In high school, Lambert was regarded as one of the heaviest hitters on the team, and I’d like to see that aspect of his game brought out a little more, as he has seemed tentative at times. Walls has first day pick written all over him. He tied for the team lead in PBUs last year as a true sophomore, and he perhaps developed faster than any other sophomore on the team. He’s turned out to be the crown jewel of the class. Bruton gave us quite a show with his coverage skills in center field last year, and we’ll need that to continue if (as is likely) our DL lacks the front-line talent to constantly harass the QB. If Bruton can get even better (he was already good) that will free up McCarthy to play with reckless abandon in run support. Overall, the Bruton-McCarthy combo is likely to be better at pass defense, but worse at run stopping and turnover-causing than Zibby-Bruton and Zibby-Ndukwe before them. Both must compliment eachother’s strengths and weaknesses to ensure both center field protection and also run defense support.

I checked again and came to the conclusion that every guy by BIG MAC

Every guy on the two deep will (barring major injury) probably make an NFL roster some day. That is impressive. Kudos to Coach Lewis and Coach Brown for some excellent recruiting.

Bruton and Walls are poised for big years by Camarillo Brillo

David Bruton is a ball hawk and a great hitter. Tough as nails. Walls has the ability to be a real shut down cornerback. Harrison Smith looked great in the Blue and Gold game. Lambert has plenty of experience. McNeil has done some good things on the field.

I think this secondary has the potential to be one of the best we’ve had in the past 10 years or so. Yet I am concerned because unless we dramatically improve our pass rush and overall run defense, this unit will still struggle.

Last year a true freshman quarterback (Ryan Mallett) threw 3 touchdown passes against us. Another young qb, Mark Sanchez for USC, tossed at least 2 TD passes. Brian Hoyle of MSU gashed the secondary for FOUR touchdown passes at South Bend.

Matt Ryan of BC and the QB for Purdue also had no trouble moving the ball through the air.

Probably a lot of the passing success of the QBs named above were on account of ND’s inability to stop the run or get a consistent rush. Those two factors must change or else this defense will give up 24+ points per game.

It will be a challenge to generate a better pass rush w/o Laws by BIG MAC

Hopefully an improved linebacker group and an improved blitz scheme can mitigate that somewhat.

Walls is underrated in run support… by Irishlord

He was one of the few to deliver a big hit in Navy game. If he was our shut down corner- he very rarely gets the green light to explode into a running play. He is a great athlete willing to hit. There is vey little to fault him on. I thought his interception return against PSU should get him a look in the return game.

I wish Lambert was more consistent. If he steps up in that department, he could be very good as well and maybe play on Sundays.

Bruton has shown his willingness to hit and seems to play very smart. He has the physical tools so I expect him to be a real leader on the defense.

I get the feeling McCarthy understands Tenuta and they click. He needs a little more swagger which may come if the defense starts posting a bunch of 3 and outs.
I am excited about the prospects of Gray and Harrison Smith. What I have seen I like so far.

Rashon McNeil- I have to admit I didn’t focus on him in the Blue Gold game. It has been reported he improved during the Spring. He is still a question mark for me, but in a positive way.

Walls will be stronger and more experienced this year by BIG MAC

That will definitely assist him in the run support aspect of his game. Kids can make a lot of progress in a year or two and physical and mental maturity are huge factors. We had an extremely young team last year. This year’s team will be young also, but not as much so and I expect to see notable improvement.

A few notes by Irish in Scranton

1. Many do not realize that Notre Dame ranked third best among teams in pass defense this year, only allowing 161.6 YPG. The Irish return 3 starters from their base defense in 07. Hopefully, they can keep up the outstanding play and get some help from the front 7.

2. Although Walls and Lambert have the ability to lock down most receivers on the outside, they leave some to be desired in run support. This means the OLB position needs to be absolutely sound in reading their keys and not letting backs turn the corner.

Our defense was not the problem with the team last year by pmcdnd96

That’s the bottom line. Was it on a par with the greatest ND defenses of all time? Not at all. But if the offense played as well as the defense, we would have been looking at a record more like 7-5. Still unacceptable, but nobody would have been talking about firing Weis. (Actually, I know better than that – people will talk about firing Weis every time we lose a game. But there would have been no rational basis for asking for Weis’ head)

The 02 secondary was pretty good by IrishGuard

Walls, Lambert, Bruton, and McCarthy have potential to be great, but I remember Baer commenting that they could do anything the wanted re: alignment, coverages, pressure packages, etc., with Walton, Duff, Earl, and Sapp locking down the secondary.

Still, this year’s DBs are going to cover a lot of the sins of the front seven. Our Lady of the coverage sack, pray for us.

This point can not be overstated by The Oak

With a talented and deep secondary, it is almost like gaining an extra defender. If our corners and free safety can lock down opposing receivers, it will free up the strong safety to help the front seven. That could be huge.

Munir Prince by InspectorClouseau

While he only spent one year as a DB, Prince’s departure seems to indirectly indicate that a) we have a skilled secondary and b) playing time will be tough to come by in the near future.

While Prince’s decision to transfer back to Mizzou involved a multitude of issues (he seemed to indicate that Notre Dame just wasn’t the right fit), I’m sure playing time was a factor.

Prince is a great athlete who will probably exceed expectations under Pinkel (IIRC, he’ll play DB there as well). That said, I think his departure indicates our secondary is in decent shape.

Walls is living up to his potential when recruited by Paddy O’Furniture

He was billed as a shut down corner, if I am correct.

The other positive is that we are deep at the position.

A negative could be that they will need to come out strong being able to play the run due to our line play, which could hurt passing.

Here’s to hoping that the line will be much better than any of us are expecting.

re: Secondary by 96_ND

Positive

Depth: At both the cornerback and safety positions there is good depth at both the corner and safety positions. At corner back Walls, McNeil, and Lambert were contributors last year and we will have Gray back. I am not sure how much time Blanton will get but he may see the field some as well. I think that the safety position will be solid with the players that we have returning. Bruton, McCarthy, and Smith were each solid contributors last year and I do not see much of a drop off from the starters from last year.

Negative

Production: Unfortunately the group is somewhat unaccomplished. Last year the team only had 11 interceptions. Since 2000 the most the team has had was 21 in 2002 when Shane Walton had 7. Bruton was our team leader with 3, while there were 57 players in college football last year had 5 or more interceptions. The returning group only broke-up 15 passes according to UND stats. If we are going to have an aggressive defense this year the secondary is going to need to make plays so that we don’t get burned on blitzing downs.

I think the best stat is defensive passer rating by 84david

We were 22nd in that statistic.

Efficiency Rating by 96_ND

My concern with this stat, as mentioned on RH, is that teams may have passed less against us last year since they were able to build early leads and run the clock. I think that could skew the stat in our favor, but correct me if I am wrong.

My concern still relates to the demonstrated production of a talented secondary.

Middle of the pack by gozer

63rd of 119 in percentage of passes intercepted. It should be noted though that there isn’t much of a spread. One more interception would have moved us up 14 spots. One more every 3 games (4 more on the year) would have moved us up 50. One fewer on the season, we drop 8 spots. 2 fewer, we’re down to 84th. Looking at the numbers, int % isn’t very telling of a teams success.

Teams averaged by ND Stitch

35.5 pass attempts against us per game in ’04
~34 per game in ’05
~26 per game in ’06
~28 per game in ’07

If that information helps anybody’s case, I’m not sure. But 2007 certainly wasn’t the year of the run against ND any more than 2006 was.

EDIT: I didn’t look at percentage of plays that were passes. It could be that the number of passes per game against was up because teams got to run a lot more plays against us. Same goes for 2006 with the funky clock rules causing 14 fewer plays per game. I guess that’s next, if I can find the data online.

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5 Responses to “The Last Line of Defense”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I concur with the strength in “talent” of the secondary. Until some semblance of a pass rush (in some cases with only your down linemen) can be established though, this talented group will still not get the credit it deserves or truly reach high levels of success. You can only ask these corners to sit out on that island for so long before a receiver will free up. ND has not had a pass rush since before things like the internet and this blog existed… JRirish

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Yes the Irish finally have a good secondary, problem is , if you cannot get a pass rush will it really show. Also worst thing for ND football in last 10 years is KEVIN WHITE.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I thought the defense did particularly well.

    When I watched the games, The defense kept us int he game by half time. It wasn’t as if the opposing offense were raining touchdowns on them.

    I felt that the offense hung them out to dry a lot. Any defense will get tired and start giving up points late in the game (end of 3rd or 4th quarter, which is what usually happened with ND’s defense).

    I remember watching the PSU game and I could see that Zbikowski (as well as the rest of the defense) was obviously gassed when he was trying not to bend over from exhaustion

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Gentlemen:

    Forget last year. Jon Tanuta isn’t going to field a woosy defense, and Corwin Brown now gets to focus on what he does best: D-backfield.

    The only real question left for Notre Dame next year, is the OL, which is very surprising, since Weis put so much emphasis on recruiting OL. ND’s got some dang beef on the ‘ol; now they just need to:

    …get them doggies roll’n…

    …rawhide!

    ’92 Gator

  5. Anonymous Says:

    What about Ray Herring? Started two games as a sophomore, got hurt and I think it has screwed up his chances the last couple years, people have forgotten about him. Also had two fumble recoveries in the Michigan game this year, the lone bright spot. He is fully recovered now and has a nose for the ball, a flat out football player. He gained a lot of ground in the spring, shows great run support, hits hard and has more game experience (special teams and defensively) than any other safety besides Bruton. He already is getting a fifth year so he should become a household name if given the chance over the next couple years.

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