The one defensive position group that I remain concerned about heading into 2011 it is the secondary. The starters are proven and capable veterans that will play solid football. But the rest of the unit is chock full of unproven young players, some of whom recently moved to the secondary specifically due to depth issues.
Of particular concern is the fact that three of the four starters Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, and Harrison Smith all exhaust their eligibility this fall. So not only is there a significant drop off in experience behind those three players, those backups really need to get some game experience this fall to prevent this discussion from being exceptionally disconcerting a year from now.
The ability of those 2's to not only develop but be capable backups when required could be the difference between a good season and a great season for this unit and for the defense as a whole.
Let's take a look.
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.
4 Gary Gray 5'11" 195 (5th Year) In my opinion Gray has been the best corner on the team for the last two seasons. Gray is quiet, solid and dependable. He does a good job in coverage and was also stout in run support last fall. I expect him to quietly lead his position group again this fall.
12 Robert Blanton 6'1" 200 (Senior) R.J. has had some flashes of greatness over his first three seasons and is now a proven veteran corner. R.J. is very similar to Gray in all respects except for the quiet part. R.J. definitely seems to enjoy singing his opponents a bit but he gets the job done. Both starting corners are solid.
23 Lo Wood 5'10" 182 (Sophomore) Wood has continued to develop and as our own Eric Murtaugh mentioned last week you get the sense that the staff is really starting to trust him. This is going to be a big fall for Wood and he needs to take advantage of it to get a firm leg up on some very talented young corners that are currently committed.
2 Bennett Jackson 6'0" 185 (Sophomore) Jackson hit campus as a wide receiver last fall but made a name for himself as a standout on special teams. I like the move to corner for Bennett as depth there was an issue that definitely needed to be addressed. Bennett also just seemed to have a natural nose for the football on special teams last fall. That could bode well for him in the secondary. Jackson will definitely be on the field at times and I think that he could be a very nice surprise this fall.
21 Jalen Brown 6'1" 198 (Freshman) Brown has a lot of potential and a great build for a corner but really needs to spend this fall developing and learning the ropes. I expect that he will have the tiger by the tail if he is required to play early in the season.
43 Josh Atkinson 6'0" 185 (Freshman) The twin brother of freshman running back George Atkinson, Josh is also very athletic. Like fellow freshman corner Jalen Brown, Josh needs to develop as rapidly as possible this season.
22 Harrison Smith 6'2" 214 (5th Year) I have always had a big soft spot for Harrison. I'm a fan. He is a freak of an athlete and he always plays hard. Always. He struggled with the transition from outside linebacker back to safety in 2009 but followed that up with a great season under the tutelage of Chuck Martin last fall. Harrison is now back as a 5th year Senior and I expect him to not only have another great season but to also be a great leader for the defense this fall.
15 Dan McCarthy 6'2" 205 (Senior*) I was really excited when the younger McCarthy committed to the Irish but four years later I am still waiting to see him make a name for himself. With Harrison hot on Manti's trail as guy least likely to ever come off of the field we won't likely see a lot of Danny unless someone gets hurt, or the team as a whole is able to create regular mop up time. Regardless he is a solid four year prospect that will hopefully prove to be a capable backup when called upon.
26 Jamoris Slaughter 6'0" 198 (Senior*) Jamoris had a pretty solid run last season splitting time with Zeke Motta opposite Harrison Smith. He and Motta have continued to battle for the starting nod in this slot and I expect to see plenty of both of them this fall. Chuck Martin has cited Slaughter's increased ability to quickly read and react as the biggest improvement in his game. The staff has also mentioned that both Slaughter and Motta will be on the field in Nickel situations vice a 3rd corner.
17 Zeke Motta 6'2" 215 (Junior) I actually like Zeke quite a bit too. For starters it is just hard not to like a guy named Zeke. In addition Motta is a thick kid that brings the wood when he gets to the ball carrier. That has resulted in him over pursuing and getting beat deep at times in the past so he will need to continue to refine those aspects of his game. That said I expect him to have a solid Junior campaign at Safety.
28 Austin Collinsworth 6'1" 195 (Sophomore) Like Bennett Jackson Collinsworth is a converted wide receiver that made a name for himself on special teams last fall. If he continues a similar trend he could emerge as a legitimate addition to the defensive backfield. At this point Chuck Martin has simply stated the obvious in saying that Collinsworth "needs more reps." Austin comes across as a very hard worker and I expect that he will get a handle on his new position ahead of schedule. I hope to see him out there getting some mop up time and settling in to his new position this fall.
34 Eilar Hardy 5'11" 177 (Freshman) Eilar was getting some praise for the staff early in camp prior to going down with a knee injury that will keep him out for the entirety of the 2011 season.
As I noted up front the starters in this group are solid and I expect them to play very well. The 2s with the obvious exception of Motta/ Slaughter could prove to be the weak link in this defense if there is one.
Talking about this group really highlights just how important game experience is to overall development of players. The 2's in this secondary could use all of the reps that they can get so I am sincerely hoping for some quality mop up time in September.
If those guys can step up their games and prove to be capable backups the Notre Dame defense could be special this fall. As an overall unit I anticipate that we will see the best defense that the Irish have had in quite some time.
What do you think?