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Irish have secondary education

Starters, backups bring talent, experience to defensive side

Walls
McNeil

– Notre Dame’s last line of defense is a coach’s dream.

The Irish secondary is loaded with talented, experienced players.

Notre Dame’s starting unit has a combined 83 games played and is led by returning leading tackler Kyle McCarthy.

McCarthy, a senior strong safety, will be joined in the starting backfield by linebacker turned free safety Harrison Smith and cornerbacks Robert Blanton and Darrin Walls, who returns after a year away from the program.

“We have a great group of guys,” said McCarthy, who had 110 tackles and two interceptions last season. “As far as talentwise and experiencewise, we have all the talent in the world.”

But not all of the starting talent has recent experience in the secondary.

Smith recorded 57 tackles with 8 1/2 for a loss last season at linebacker. The junior did practice at safety as a freshman.

And Walls, a 6-foot, 190-pound senior, did not enroll at Notre Dame last year for personal reasons.

The return of the cornerback, who had 32 tackles, one interception and forced two fumbles in 2007, should help a secondary that accounted for 13 of 14 interceptions and five of nine forced fumbles last season.

“(Walls) has tremendous talent,” McCarthy said. “He is really a lockdown corner, and that can change your whole mentality on defense. You can call a little more of an attacking defense.”

Walls, who will play right corner, will be complemented by Blanton.

Blanton moved into the starting position this fall, after recording 33 tackles and two interceptions last season playing in 12 games and starting four.

Blanton said he is not resting on what he did last year.

“I’m comfortable, but I have to get a lot better as well,” Blanton said. “I just need to get everything better.”

The experience doesn’t stop at the first unit.

Senior cornerback Raeshon McNeil, who started all 14 games last year, and senior strong safety Sergio Brown have played in a combined 68 games. They are on the second unit with sophomores Dan McCarthy at free safety and Jamoris Slaughter at cornerback.

Senior Mike Anello and junior Gary Gray add depth at cornerback, with their combined 29 appearances.

“I think the guys have played a lot and been in a lot of different situations, and it will help them in future situations,” said Corwin Brown, co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. “They will have something to go back to and play off of.”

But experience doesn’t always equal success.

“Age doesn’t necessarily mean better,” McNeil said. “We do have a maturity level, and a lot of guys come in and watch film on their own. Guys have started to become students of the game.”

The players will be studying closer with their position coach this season. Brown called the defensive plays last year, but Jon Tenuta, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, is taking over the play calling this season.

“It has been real good. You get more specific coaching,” McNeil said of Brown focusing on defensive backs. “Having him lock in on us has really paid off for us.”

tkrausz@jg.net

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