Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Leader of the Pack

Yesterday the countdown opened with a bit of abstract thinking. Today we turn our attention to one player who'll play a key role in the 2008 Irish defense.

Twelve Days of Irish Football continues with...

#11 - The Leader of the Pack

Notre Dame's football team last season was so bad in so many ways that it's almost tough to fathom that anybody on it could be considered good, but there were actually a few solid individual performances last season. One stands out because it could be a precursor to across-the-board improvements if the 2008 Irish are keen to follow his lead. The player? Free safety David Bruton.

To say Bruton's career as a defensive player got off to an inauspicious start would be putting it kindly. Though a solid special teams contributor throughout his freshman and sophomore campaigns, an injury to Chinedum Ndukwe thrust him into his first significant, game-in-doubt playing time against USC in the final game of the 2006 regular season. The results weren't pretty. Looking out of place and out of synch, Bruton was targeted over and over during the second half as J.D. Booty and Dwayne Jarrett kept the Irish at arm's length throughout a 44-24 loss.

At first, Bruton punished himself by tape study, forcing the second half coaches' film down his own throat for weeks on end.
Every day for three weeks, Bruton would watch the USC tape, beating himself up mentally each time, questioning his ability and his potential.

"Putting that behind me is part of the maturity thing," Bruton said. "Every defensive back gets beat. The great ones have the ability to move past that."
Instead of falling apart, Bruton redoubled his efforts, cut his weight, bulked up his frame, and turned into a playmaking safety while nobody was watching during 2007. He had as many sacks by the end of the first quarter in the first game against Georgia Tech last year (1) than both Ndukwe and Tom Zbikowski combined during all of 2006. He finished with 85 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, 3 interceptions and 1 fumble recovered. His interception near the end of the first half against Michigan State was the kind of play most NFL safeties don't make. To put it bluntly, David Bruton got burnt to a crisp - and then came back for more and was better for it.

Now he's a father (his son Jaden will turn 3 this year) and team captain. While plenty of due respect gets directed to fifth-year senior Maurice Crum as the leader of the defense, Bruton's own teammates on both sides of the football would do well to follow his example. He got thrown to the mat and sprang right back up, refusing to let bad results break him down. For his own part, as much progress as he made last year, Bruton knows that work remains both for his own game and Notre Dame's defense as a whole. Can he become an even stronger coverage safety, which would grant the Irish more freedom to blitz with the front seven (as we know Jon Tenuta and Corwin Brown probably want?) Can he get stronger playing the run? I don't mean in a complete sell-out to the ground game, but several Irish opponents will be looking for open daylight with either option (Navy) or zone-read (Michigan) running games. A big part of how the Irish defense plays in those matchups will be determined by how well Bruton plays, especially since he's the one true voice of experience in the backfield along with Terrail Lambert. Exceptional play from him early should alleviate the pressure on first-time starter Kyle McCarthy and Raeshon McNeil, plus youngsters Gary Gray, Sergio Brown, and Robert Blanton.

We're inching closer to the first step in this 12-part answer. While it could be too much to tab Bruton as the player on whom the entire Irish defense turns, it's not too much to ask, "What better way to compensate for the loss of your best cover corner, and to allow your coaches to generate more pressure up front than by having an All-American safety dropping back?" Bruton could have that type of year, and the Irish need him to have that type of year. Already a terrific example of the maturing process that can turn a very raw freshman or sophomore into a standout upperclass leader, a fantastic finish from David could pay dividends that last well beyond 2008. Great leaders don't just go places, they get others to go there with them - watch out if Bruton's hard work and strong development start to trickle down through the ND roster.

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