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Defense hopes position changes are answer

Michael Bryan | Friday, October 30, 2009

After weeks of struggling in pass coverage that concluded with 380 yards through the air for Matt Barkley and USC, the Notre Dame secondary needed some changes.

Beginning with the Boston College game and leading into this week’s game against Washington State in San Antonio, the Irish made personnel changes on the depth chart.

Junior Harrison Smith, who had been the starter at free safety, moved down to outside linebacker and also played as a nickel back against the Eagles. Smith had four tackles, including one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble in his new role.

“He played significantly better,” coach Charlie Weis. “He’s had some good production in the secondary, it’s just that his confidence has gotten a little bit shaken, so we moved him down into a comfort zone to regain his confidence.”

Following the Boston College game, Smith was listed as a co-starter at the Sam linebacker position with Darius Fleming, who has frequently moved to defensive end in nickel packages.

Smith said his experience last season at outside linebacker made the move an easy transition. “I’ve been there before. I mean I played safety the first half of this year, but I’m using last year’s experience,” Smith said. “You do a lot of the same stuff and you blitz a lot, so it’s not too different.”

Smith said he was comfortable with the change and could rotate between positions.

“At this point, wherever the coaches want me to play is where I’m going to play, so I’m fine with that.”

With Smith moving to linebacker for the foreseeable future, senior Sergio Brown has taken over the starting job at free safety. Brown had been primarily used as a nickel back in coverage and blitzing off the edge.

“[Harrison Smith] sort of flip-flopped with Sergio,” Weis said. “With Sergio going back into his positions and Harrison going down there working at Sam along with Darius and those other guys.”

Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said the change benefits both Brown and Smith.

“Harrison, the first time he got in there he knocked the ball loose. The guy’s a tremendous athlete and I’m going to use him more and more because he’s an outstanding blitzer,” Tenuta said. “Sergio did a good job, he’s been the nickel for us from two years and playing in space so the alignment is a little different at times, but he did a good job.”
Brown had four tackles, a forced fumble and a pass breakup against the Eagles.

Also seeing significant time at free safety was sophomore Jamoris Slaughter, who came in at times for Brown. Slaughter has seen time at both the corner and safety positions early in his career.

“Jamoris is a guy that we’re going to cross train and cross train at both corner and safety this week. We’re going to look at him in both positions, you know, because he’s been such a sound tackler,” Weis said before the game against Boston College. “So we’re going to take a good look at seeing if we can’t get him on the field some. Not as a starter but we’re going to see if we can’t work him there.”

At the cornerback position, junior Gary Gray has solidified his role as a starter alongside sophomore Robert Blanton. Gray had a crucial interception in the fourth quarter against Boston College.

“I think Gary has played more because he was the one guy that recently that as he started to get some time has been really competing for the ball,” Weis said. “I think that that one of the areas that, you know, I’ve been saying we need to be competing for the ball and Gary’s been competing for it.”

With the Irish currently 117th in the nation in pass defense and allowing 282 yards per game, Tenuta and the Notre Dame secondary hope the changes show results.