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FOOTBALL: Safety valves

Andrew Soukup | Monday, September 1, 2003

Eli Whitney would have been proud of Trent Walters.

Had Whitney, who created the concept of interchangeable parts, seen how Walters, who coaches the Irish secondary, shuffles Irish defensive backs around the field, he might have smiled.

But Walters wasn’t smiling when he was forced to shuffle players around earlier in the preseason after a series of injuries left the Irish with a temporary depth problem at safety.

The Irish coach, however, believes the constant shuffling may help strengthen an Irish secondary that lost consensus All-American cornerback Shane Walton and strong safety Gerome Sapp to graduation.

“It goes straight to the philosophy of interchangeable parts,” Walters said. “We want our guys to be able to play a number of positions.”

If that desire was only a dream before fall camp began, it became a reality when Garron Bible, Sapp’s heir apparent, was sidelined with an injury. So Walters moved Glenn Earl from free safety, where the hard-hitter started all 13 games for the Irish last year, to strong safety. Meanwhile, Quentin Burrell moved in to replace Bible at free safety until he, too, was briefly sidelined with an injury. Bible came back to play strong safety, and Earl moved back to his regular position.

And that describes the turmoil in just half of the secondary. Two-year starter Vontez Duff is firmly entrenched at one cornerback position, but fifth-year senior Jason Beckstrom and Preston Jackson are waging a fierce battle for the other starting slot.

When will the coaches name the starters for Saturday’s game against Washington State? Walters hopes to have made a decision by the time game-preparatory practices begin Tuesday, but even he doesn’t yet know which players will stand out.

“It’s been difficult for [the players],” head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “But they place the team first. Those guys are competing to see if they can help us out.”

That’s why Walters often tells his charges that coaches are watching every action on the practice field to try to distinguish the starters.The ultimate goal is to attempt to mimic the chemistry between the secondary that helped last year’s starters intercept 14 passes and record 244 tackles.

“Those guys fed off each other and believed in each other,” Walters said.But as some players say, it has been a difficult quest to duplicate that chemistry this fall with the multitude of injuries and uncertainty at many of the positions.

“Ideally, you’d look to your right and left and know who was going to be there,” Earl said. “There hasn’t been a constant thing.”

What Walters said he is looking for is the best combination of players, not necessarily the best athletes. But he quickly adds that all the preseason shuffling has generated some much-needed depth in the secondary. If one defender goes down, another qualified player is able to take his place. If the offense calls an audible, the players can easily change their assignments rather than their places on the field.

The four players competing for a starting spot offer a variety of strengths. Beckstrom gives the Irish an experienced fifth-year cornerback who sat out last season while recovering from a torn bicep. Jackson played a significant amount as the team’s fifth defensive back last year. Bible started two games last season for an injured Sapp and can play either safety position. And Burrell possesses little game experience but a playmaking potential that has Irish coaches excited.

“When it’s this close, whatever you do, the coaches are looking at it,” Walters said. “You look to see how they play together, if you get great communication, and if they perform smoothly and with enthusiasm.”All will contribute. It’s who we start that we have to figure out.”