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Do the d-back shuffle

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, September 1, 2004

After preseason injury watches and practice observation, Tyrone Willingham and his staff have determined the defensive backfield starters.

“I think right now we’re leaning toward Preston Jackson and Dwight Ellick [at cornerback],” Willingham said.

Senior Quentin Burrell gets the nod at free safety after sitting out the majority of fall practice with an injury. The strong safety spot is up for grabs still between senior Lionel Bolen and sophomore Freddie Parish.

And though the coaches have stepped up and definitively named three of the four starters in the defensive backfield, they acknowledge the uncertainty of a relatively inexperienced secondary.

“In terms of their passing game, we do have some inexperience in our secondary,” Willingham said. “What we’ve got to do is count on our front seven to really be a force for us to help out our secondary get its feet on the ground.”

Jackson, Ellick, Burrell and Bolen are all seniors, but the playing time over the past few seasons has gone primarily to departed players such as Shane Walton and Vontez Duff at cornerback, and Glenn Earl and Garron Bible at the safety positions.

Burrell has the most experience and is expected to be a secondary leader behind a defensive line that could help the rest of the defense handle passing attacks.

“If we can count on the Justins (Tuck), the Victors (Abiamiri), the Kyles (Budinsack), the Gregs (Pauly) to really apply some pressure to that quarterback and make it really uncomfortable for him… then we help our secondary out,” Willingham said.

Burrell finished fourth in the Irish in tackles last season with 58 total and 39 solos. He intercepted four passes and recovered two fumbles.

Bolen started one game last season against Florida State and played in 10 other games, collecting 12 tackles.

Ellick played in 10 games in 2003, recording 21 tackles. Jackson made 24 tackles last season and intercepted one pass, playing in all 12 games as primarily a nickel back.

Notes- Defensive backs coach Steven Wilks and defensive coordinator Kent Baer have rooted through their talent and pulled an interesting game plan out of fall camp.

In a normal cover-two defense that features two cornerbacks, two safeties and three linebackers, Jackson and Ellick will get the start at the cornerback slots. But Jackson will shift positions when the defense changes.

“Preston will shift to nickel back and [senior] Carlos Campbell will most likely be the cornerback,” Baer said of when opposing offenses split three wide receivers outside.

“In the dime [defense], it will probably be Mike Richardson [in as the fourth defensive back],” Baer said.

– Though young players like Darius Walker and Justin Hoskins have impressed in practices and scrimmages, Tyrone Willingham said no freshman should see the field Saturday.

“I’d probably say there’s still some growth and learning to take place,” he said. “Some of [the freshmen] are very close to positioning themselves, but I think to start this opening ballgame, I would probably say zero [freshmen will play].”

– Willingham has not decided one-hundred percent on who will return kicks Saturday night, but he gave a hint of the personnel Tuesday.

“Probably our starter in the punt return will be Rhema [McKnight] starting there, and our kickoff return we’re still making that decision,” he said.