No player on the 2010 Irish roster has tasted consistent success on the college gridiron. In fact, no player on the Irish roster is more than one game over .500 in the W/L column, at least during contests in which he played.
Senior Darrin Walls, however, is one Irish returnee that has experienced the joy and felf the athletic pride of contributing to a winning squad.
In his freshman season of 2006, Walls debuted in the first quarter at Georgia Tech in Atlanta (in prime time) vs. the nation's best wide receiver, Calvin Johnson. He broke up his only pass of the season that day, and played in eight total games (starting two) for the 10-3 BCS-bound Irish.
After an apparent break-out sophomore season in 2007 during which Walls recorded 9 pass break-ups, forced two fumbles, and a notched a 73-yard interception return for a touchdown (Notre Dame's only touchdown in the season's first three contests), Walls missed the 2008 football season and school year due to personal reasons.
His anticipated and celebrated return in '09 yielded mixed results: 12 games, 8 starts, just one turnover created, a number of big plays against him down field, and touchdown receptions allowed vs. Michigan, Michigan State, Washington, USC, and Pittsburgh.
Walls experienced immediate team success followed by a season of individual excellence coupled with team failure. Then two semesters away from college before returning and playing below his and fans' expectation levels last season.
Adversity has helped Walls prepare for his final season.
"My first year we had a pretty good year, but we expected more, really. And it could have been better. Then my sophomore year we had a rough season with a new quarterback and a new defensive staff," Walls noted of the '07 train wreck.
"I learned from all of those experiences: my first year I learned to take things in (appreciate things) and take nothing for granted. And then all the adversity of (2007)…" Walls continued, his voice trailing off before acknowledging he "didn't play" in '08.
"Last year I didn't play too well. I'm excited for the opportunity to get back out here and play another year; to really try to improve on the negatives and make them into positives."
Walls felt many of his issues in coverage last season were correctable.
"A lot of the things were mental mistakes. I'm working on that now. Last year I did a lot of things that were stupid; dumb. Things I could have fixed, and I will."
Three Viable Starters, Six in the Mix
Walls was singled out by head coach Brian Kelly last week as a player that "has had a really good three days…really good." He's slated for field cornerback duties next fall.
"That's what I've usually played since I got here – out in the field (side)," Walls noted. "Gary's (Gray) a great tackler; one of the better tacklers out here in the secondary and most of the runs come to the boundary and that's just a great fit for him.
"And R.J. (Blanton) can do it all, so we all have our strengths. But yeah, I'm comfortable in the field (position)."
The Walls/Gray/Blanton triumvirate is slated for extensive duty next fall. The future depth chart's fourth cornerback has impressed both the unit's graybeard, Walls, and new defensive backs coach Chuck Martin.
"To be honest I've been please with our guys," Martin offered. "The corners: with Darrin and R.J. and Gary Gray, I think they've all picked up things quickly and competed hard.
"They've had their bad days like everyone has but for the most part I think they've improved. E.J. Banks never really played any corner in his life before he got here – then he got hurt – I think he's made great strides this spring. He's behind (in terms of experience) with those other guys but he's given us some confidence that he can help us down the road."
"E.J.'s doing really well this year," Walls acknowledged. "We're looking for him to push us and make us better."
Cornerbacks: A Closer Look
The CB trio of Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, and Robert Blanton
have notable game day experience heading into 2010. Their backups: E.J. Banks, Lo Wood
, and Spencer Boyd
, have never played a down of college football, and have 12 aggregate seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Walls: 32 games (22 starts), 63 tackles (3.5 TFL), 2 INT (1 TD), 17 passes broken up, 2 forced fumbles. This will be Walls' final season.
- Blanton: 24 games (12 starts), 71 tackles (4 TFL), 4 INT (1 TD), 9 passes broken up. Blanton will be a true junior in 2010 with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Gray: 20 games (7 starts), 45 tackles, 3 INT (1 TD), 6 passes broken up, 1 FR. Gray will be a senior in the fall but has two seasons of eligibility remaining after sitting out his freshman year (2007).
2009 spring enrollee E.J. Banks was withheld from action last season while 2010 early enrollee's Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd round out the cornerback depth chart heading into the summer.
Banks appears to be involved with the first team punt coverage unit. The Pittsburgh native broke up a 3rd and 1 slant in the open scrimmage; followed later with a form tackle after a short gain by Roby Toma; was muscled for a catch by Duval Kamara (despite pretty good coverage) for a 3rd down post pattern (on a strong throw by Crist); and concluded his day with a 4th and 7 breakup vs. the first unit and freshman WR Tai-ler Jones.
Wood appears ahead of Boyd after 13 spring practices, though both technically combine as the team's 3rd string cornerbacks. Wood showed good closing speed and route recognition in the media's open practice viewing, disrupting an inside route by senior Barry Gallup to make a physical pass break-up.
Boyd's scrimmage highlight was a pass breakup on a (poorly thrown) fade pattern intended for Shaq Evans.
No Decision Necessary
Walls noted that he knew he'd be back for the 2010 season, technically not his fifth as he continues to work towards his degree as a result of a 2008 school year spent at home in Pittsburgh. Next fall will be his fourth and final season of football for the Irish.
"I wasn't leaving until I graduated but I knew I wasn't good enough to leave (declare for the NFL draft) anyway. Just the decision to come back and fulfill my degrees made it simple (Walls is pursuing a double major in sociology and psychology)."
Like most of his returning teammates, the coaching change had little impact on his status.
"Not really. This place is a great place. I worked so hard to get back in school that it wasn't even an issue with me. I needed to see this through with my team."
On the field, Walls concurs with the majority: less thinking will result in more action.
"I think it's more simplistic (the collective defensive responsibilities) so we can play faster," Walls said. "When you're faster you make plays. Great defenses attack the ball and that's one thing we're able to do (now)."
One of three cornerbacks expected to receive extensive playing time next fall, senior Darrin Walls looks to put a disappointing 2009 campaign behind him.
The Walls, Gray, Blanton trio has accumulated 41 career starts heading into 2010.