Friday, August 28, 2009

8 Men In | by George

We all know that Notre Dame football provides its fans with something to talk about (or argue, whichever comes first) all the time. This season, no matter the results, much will be written and debated about the link between coaching and talent, specifically with some of the key units for Notre Dame under new management - Frank Verducci (O-Line), Tony Alford (Running Backs), Randy Hart (D-Line). More ink will be devoted to these men and their charges as the season draws closer - and if it is successful, prepare thyself. A flop? Oh boy, really prepare thyself. But one coach who holds a big sway in Irish fortunes is a one-time wunderkind who's evolved into a veteran voice on that staff, a savvy co-owner of the defense who is still, in one man's humble opinion, the second most-important member behind one Charles Weis.

#8 in the countdown, come on down...

#8 - All Cornered

There were a few position battles going in during Notre Dame's spring and fall practice periods, and one area that always had a healthy competition going was the defensive backfield. This was not a case of, "Sure, there are some incumbent starters there but things are pretty open anyway because nobody's been all that good" like we saw in the special teams unit and certain places along the offensive line. The four starting spots among the DBs were going to be earned the old-fashioned way.

For all the potential that lurks with the linebackers, and all the promise of a new regime along the lines, one area that seems to be limited only by the fact that you can only play so many guys at a time is corner & safety. RJ Blanton is back after turning heads during his freshman year, and classmate Jamoris Slaughter won't be kept on the bench a second year due to lack of effort. Returning (and right back in the thick of things) after a semester off is junior Gary Gray, and he's joined by senior Darrin Walls - who missed all of last season after being away from the University. Include safeties Kyle & Dan McCarthy, Harrison Smith, true frosh early enrollee Zeke Motta, plus do-everything nickel back Sergio Brown and senior corner Raeshon McNeil, suddenly being a DB for Notre Dame seems a little like being an RB at USC these days - 'there's just so many options to choose from!'

The man in charge of juggling the formations and tendencies is Corwin Brown, who experienced a shift in titles and responsibilities this offseason as Jon Tenuta was officially given a defensive coordinator's placard. Brown has effectively become the Kordell Stewart of the coaching staff, a multi-faceted role known as "Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs". It's this third slice which should be a point of emphasis. We've seen Notre Dame play aggressive coverage (Walls & Blanton), we've seen them blitz like there was no tomorrow (Smith & Brown), we've seen them develop into great open-field tacklers that helped kill off potential big plays (McCarthy). Now comes the moment when Brown proves himself as a coach - molding the deepest and most experienced part of Notre Dame's defense into a great complement to what Tenuta & Hart are working with up front.

Ideally, this is an impact that won't show up in countless ways on the stat sheet, if at all. Phrase it a simpler way: it can either be a good thing or a bad thing when the top tacklers on the team are defensive backs, and in the past couple of seasons Notre Dame has flirted with the wrong side of that distinction. No more over-relying on good safety play to stop the option/spread offenses the Irish will face in the first couple weeks (though inevitably these guys are going to have to step up and make plays against those units if Notre Dame wants to win). More pressure up front, allowing the Irish to give more reps to the 'playmakers' in the backfield like Blanton, Brown, & and Harrison Smith, while still having the ace of an excellent coverage back like Walls to go against quality wideouts. Avid readers of Blue-Gray Sky might remember their outstanding recap of the opposing wideout groups for 2009 - it's interesting to note that only 2 of the 12 Irish opponents (USC & Washington) return a WR who had at least 50 catches last season, and there isn't really an "elite" wide receiver on this year's schedule of foes...though I wouldn't bet against one developing out of USC before the year ends.

Point is, with a full two-deep of players who bring unique skills and various styles to the backfield, Corwin Brown ought to have the freedom to let an opponent know on every single down that going to the air is going to pose a problem...and that's before offensive coordinators start thinking about how they're going to handle the Tenuta blitz packages. This could finally be the season when the Irish complete the transition from that ugly duckling year of 2007 when they ranked so highly against pass simply by virtue of being horrendous against the run, and they still allowed numerous big passing plays along the way. If it is, Corwin Brown and the boys who are often seen leading the "Crank Me Up" cheers will be cranking all the way to January...and maybe beyond.

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