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Football: Secondary to none

Matt Gamber | Thursday, September 3, 2009

No position group boasts more talented and experienced depth than the Irish secondary, an area of strength on last year’s mediocre defense that hopes to improve with gifted youngsters throughout the front seven.

Though safeties Kyle McCarthy and Harrison Smith have been projected starters since the start of spring camp, there has been a healthy competition between corners, and for playing time in nickel and dime packages. But that hasn’t weakened the bond between teammates.

“We’re a close knit group,” said McCarthy, a senior captain. “No one’s looking out for themselves. If that means they’re not starting one day, that’s what it means and they’re here to help the team.”

The return of corner Darrin Walls, who has made 13 career starts, gives Notre Dame an extra starting-caliber player opposite listed starters Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil. In fact, Irish coach Charlie Weis said Walls is “right there,” in terms of being a starter after missing last season.

“I wouldn’t read too much into Raeshon being ahead of Darrin,” Weis said. “I think you’ll see them both on the field. It’s just that Darrin was limited [by injury] really for a week and a half and Raeshon was getting all those reps and Darrin was hardly getting any.”

Though there were open competitions for many starting jobs throughout Irish camp, none featured more proven players than the three-way battle for the two starting corner spots. But Walls echoed McCarthy’s statement in saying that the healthy competition only made the team stronger.

“For the most part we look at each other as brothers, we look out for each other, and we know we have a lot of good guys back there that can play,” Walls said. “We just push each other every day and try to get each other better. We know the coaches are going to make the best decisions.”

In terms of how the Irish will line up Saturday, several defensive backs will likely see time against Nevada’s vaunted pistol attack. Corners Gary Gray and Jamoris Slaughter will likely work their way into the rotation.

But McCarthy and Smith will surely be called upon to help in run support, as Wolfpack quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott will each be looking to run downhill through the Irish defense.

Notre Dame’s safeties should be up for the task, however, as McCarthy was the team’s leading tackler a year ago, and Smith is a converted linebacker.

McCarthy made 110 stops last season, including a team-high 64 solo. He also had 3.5 tackles for loss and made two interceptions.

Smith had 57 tackles (39 solo) and 8.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 sacks, which tied for the team lead. He figures to be a run-stopping threat as he moves further away from the line of scrimmage but will still have the flexibility to make big plays to stop the ground game.

Blanton and McNeil each had two interceptions last season, and McNeil led the Irish with 11 pass breakups.