If there is one position group that I am concerned about heading into 2010 it is the secondary. Simply stated the secondary is short on both numbers and experience.
Freshman safety Chris Badger will be in Ecuador for the next two years on a mission trip. Freshman early enrollee corner Spencer Boyd opted to transfer to South Florida. Then last week sophomore corner E.J. Banks left the team but remains enrolled in school. His future status remains unknown. While I did not expect any of those players to see much time this fall their collective departures definitely thinned the depth chart.
Coach Kelly kicked off fall camp by calling the secondary as a "question mark."
"I believe that from a defensive standpoint we have play-makers on the perimeter that can do some great things for us. And I think we have some vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities will be experience at the quarterback position, depth at the defensive line position."
"Then we have some question marks: consistency and performance in the back end of our defense and our kicking game."
That is one way to put it.
At corner secondary coach Chuck Martin is working with 3 capable and experienced players, one true freshman and a 5th year journeyman. At safety he has one player that has more minutes at OLB than safety, three very inexperienced players and a true freshman that might actually be a linebacker. I will openly admit that the whole scenario is enough to make me a bit nervous.
Listed below are the individual players in the secondary by position. Players with an * next to their class will be eligible to apply for a 5th year after graduation. One thing to note is that if sophomore corner E.J. Banks does not return to the team only three scholarship corners on the roster will be returning in 2011.
2 Darrin Walls 6’0" 190 (5th Year) Darrin was a highly touted recruit that showed flashes of greatness as a freshman and sophomore. I will never forget him going toe to toe with Calvin Johnson as a true freshman in the 2006 opener or his pick six at Penn State in 2007. After sitting out 2008 for personal reasons Darrin returned to the lineup in 2009 and the entire unit struggled. I tend to think that a seemingly never ending series of failed blitzes didn’t help matters much but regardless there is much room for improvement across the board. With a revamped scheme and the tutelage of Chuck Martin I expect that Walls will look a lot more like we always hoped he would in 2010.
4 Gary Gray 5’11" 190 (Senior*) Gray often looked like the best cover corner on the team last season and is more than capable of holding down his assignment. I expect to see a lot of #4 this fall and believe that he will have a very productive season.
12 Robert Blanton 6’1" 192 (Junior) R.J. had some nice flashes as a freshman in 2008 and somewhat faded into the background as a sophomore last season. His ability to bounce back this fall could make a huge difference for this unit. Like Walls and Gray R.J. has plenty of tools in his kit bag he just needs to bear down and get it done.
23 Lo Wood 5’10" 178 (Freshman) Wood has earned some kudos from the coaching staff thus far in camp for his approach to practice. This is a good thing as he will definitely be called upon to contribute. Lo will undoubtedly make some freshman mistakes along the way but he doesn’t have much time to grow up. The Irish need him to emerge as a contributor in the rotation as soon as possible. I expect to see him get some reps against Purdue.
21 Barry Gallup Jr. 5’11" 190 (5th Year) Gallup spent his first four years in the program bouncing around the lower echelons of the depth chart between running back and receiver. He is now being called upon to provide some additional depth at corner. His ability to rapidly develop into a serviceable backup could make all the difference for this unit in 2010.
Chuck Martin has stated that those first three corners will be fixtures of both the defense and special teams. All three of them have the potential to be very good and I think they will all get there this season. Wood will be called upon regardless but if any of those first three players gets injured both Wood and Gallup will have to be ready to contribute.
22 Harrison Smith 6’2" 214 (Senior*) For whatever reason I have a real soft spot for Harrison. He is a freak of an athlete and always plays hard. He struggled with the transition from outside linebacker back to safety last year but Coach Kelly has made nothing but positive comments about Harrison since arriving on campus last winter. I have always felt that Harrison could develop into a quality safety with the right coaching and I am pretty confident that Chuck Martin will prove to be that coach. I like Harrison as a nice and needed surprise at one of the safety spots this fall.
15 Dan McCarthy 6’2" 205 (Junior*) I have been excited about the younger McCarthy brother since the day that he committed to the Irish. He is an athletic kid and if he proves to be half as tough as his older brother I am certain to be a big fan. Ready or not he will be in the mix this fall.
26 Jamoris Slaughter 6’0" 195 (Junior*) Slaughter moved over to Safety last fall when Harrison Smith moved back to OLB for the BC game. He saw some action there during the November to forget and finds himself back in the mix heading into 2010. Coach Kelly commented on his inconsistency early in camp but the upside is that he does show flashes of playing at a high level. That consistency will likely be the determining factor in how often we see Jamoris this fall.
17 Zeke Motta 6’2" 210 (Sophomore) Zeke has a lot of upside and cut his teeth with some action as a freshman last fall. If Slaughter remains inconsistent Motta could emerge as a starter alongside Harrison Smith.
49 Derek Roback 6’3" 233 (Freshman) I covered Derek with the Linebackers as he appears to be floating between units for the time being. I don’t expect that he will see the field in either place unless injuries dictate that he has to.
Coach Kelly probably said it best himself. The secondary truly is a bit of a question mark. I see the Irish as having 3 corners that could all prove to be solid and the safety positions are a wide open race with little collective experience. Depth is an obvious issue across the board. After the first scrimmage last Saturday Coach Kelly offered this nugget.
"I think if we had one thing that we wanted to do a little bit better defensively, it’s be consistent on the passing game. We were able to throw the ball a little bit. I thought our defense did a pretty good job against the run."
No surprise there. I have already stated that I expected as much against the run from the front seven. The upside is that I would rather be able to shut down the run and take my chances against the pass than vice versa. The front seven might also provide some additional help in the form of effective pressure while the secondary gets their sea legs.
Regardless this unit will be a work in progress and September might be more interesting than it should be as a result. Down the stretch I think they will settle in and hold up their end of the deal. If the secondary can stay healthy I think they will ultimately turn out to be better than expected as the season wears on which is the exact opposite of how last fall shook out.