Thursday, September 01, 2005

2005 Opponent Position Preview - Secondary | by Pat

Last in our series on opponent position breakdowns, but certainly not least, here's a look at the safeties and cornerbacks that the Irish will be facing this year. These cover men should be of particular interest, as Coach Weis hopes to establish a more productive offense in 2005. So just what kind of defensive backs will be lining up to stop Notre Dame's hopefully-improved passing game? Let's take a look.

All stats from 2004. Handy abbrevations: TFL - tackles for loss. INT - intereception. BrUp - passes broken up. FR - fumble recovered. FF - forced fumble. STP - Stone Temple Pilots.


CB - Josh Lay. 22 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 3 INT, 12 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
CB - Darrelle Revis. 49 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INT, 1 FF. - Returning Starter.
SS - Mike Phillips. 30 tackles, 2 INT, 9 BrUp, 1 FF.
FS - Tez Morris. 85 tackles, 3 BrUp, 1 FR. - Returning Starter.

Pitt's secondary is an interesting case. They have size, talent, experience, and return starters. But the unit finished last season as one of the lowest ranked pass defenses in the country. With three returning starters, it's obvious that this year they will look for a dramatic improvement in that number. All-Big East Josh Lay is extremely tall for a cornerback at 6'2" which will help when defending taller receivers like Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija. He really improved over the course of last season and should be one of the better corners that Notre Dame faces this season. Revis (right) was a freshman all-american last year and one of the bigger surprises on the Pitt defense. He did miss the ND game last year so Irish receivers haven't had a chance to go against him yet. At 6'0", he also has plenty of size and with a year of experience should be a formidable defender. Phillips has shifted to strong safety from corner, where he started six games last season, and should bring even more speed to the Pitt defense. Morris is entering his 4th year as a starter at free safety and finished 3rd on the team in tackles last year so he has proven production as well as experience. Depth: Sam Bryant provides Pitt with a larger (220lb) strong safety for when more run support becomes a consideration. Reggie Carter doesn't have much experience at backup corner, but is Pitt's 3rd corner at least 6'0" tall.


CB - Leon Hall. 48 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 INT, 8 BrUp, 2 FR. - Returning Starter.
CB - Grant Mason. 20 tackles, 1 INT, 1 BrUp, 1 FF.
SS - Brandent Englemon. 13 tackles, 1 FF.
FS - Willis Barringer. 5 tackles.

Michigan's secondary took a hit with the loss of Ernest Shazor and Marlin Jackson and most likely will showcase a few faces at safety until solid starters emerge. At corner, Hall (left) has consistently improved after beating out former starter Markus Curry and should be a quality corner for the Wolverines this fall. Stanford transfer Mason dabbled at wide receiver but now is back at corner and will have to fill in for Marlin Jackson. He played in nickel and dime defenses before so he does have some experience. Englemon had an excellent spring and fall camp according to coaches and is credited for being a very heady player. Barringer, who started 6 games in 2003, is listed as the starter on the most recent depth chart, but that might not even last until the Notre Dame game. Depth: Ryan Mundy has had an injury-filled fall so far and if healthy would be the odds on favorite to start over Barringer. How soon he is able to play at full strength will determine how soon he sees the majority of minutes at free safety. Sophomore Jamar Adams is young and inexperienced but should challenge Englemon for the starting strong safety spot all year long. A third safety in the mix is one-time ND commit, Brandon Harrison, who was quickly moved to safety from corner and is likely to see time this fall at free safety. Pushing for Mason's starting spot are senior Darnell Hall and sophomore Chris Stewart, who have both had a strong fall camp. Finally, converted wide receiver and speedster Morgan Trent will backup Leon Hall.


CB - Demond Williams.
CB - Ashton Watson. 10 tackles, 1 INT, 1 BrUp.
SS - Eric Smith. 115 tackles. 3.0 TFL, 9 BrUp, 2 FR, 1 FF. - Returning Starter.
FS - Greg Cooper. 17 tackles, 5 BrUp.

The Spartans defensive backfield has been a big question mark entering fall camp as players switched positions, were suspended, and declared inelgible while Coach Smith tried to find four starters. The big name in this unit is Smith (right), who starred for Michigan State at the Bandit position last year. He will bring leadership and experience to a shaky unit as the leading returning tackler on the roster. Next to Smith at free safety will be Greg Cooper, who isn't a terribly big player at 5'11" 187lbs, but is exceptionally quick and should help out the new cornerbacks. Watson is one of those new starters at corner after playing in the nickel and on special teams last year as well as special teams. He may be a new full-time starter, but he has played in 31 games and has 5 starts to his credit. JUCO transfer Demond Williams earned the other corner spot after an impressive fall camp. Depth: The best corner on the team still isn't officially a part of the team as former starter Jaren Hayes is looking to return from a suspension that had him classified as a walk-on. Odds are that he will be re-instated and will start against Notre Dame in 2 weeks. MSU's other back-up corners showcase their extreme lack of depth at corner. Travis Key is a former walk-on currently listed as #2 to Williams while true freshman Ross Weaver is next in line behind Watson. Another freshman, Kendall Davis , was expected to contribute but was just declared ineligible and won't be able to play this season.


CB - Matt Fountanie. 20 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 BrUp.
CB - Roy Lewis.
SS - C.J. Wallace. 66 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3 BrUp, 1 INT, 1 FR. 1 FF. - Returning Starter.
FS - Dashon Goldson. 64 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 INT, 5 BrUp, 2 FR, 1 FF. - Returning Starter.

The only two spots on the Husky defense that don't return a starter are corner. And the competition for those spots has been wide open. Fountanie (left) has locked down one of the starting corner spots and the sophomore will make the leap from the team's nickel back to #1 corner. Irish fans may remember him as he had an interception last year against Notre Dame. Lewis transfered into Washington from San Jose State and will be expected to be an instant contributor in his first year as a starter. Wallace is the most experienced player in the secondary and finished 4th on the team in tackles last year. He was solid in run support last year and now will be expected to help out more against the pass. Goldson battled a shoulder injury last season but still finished right behind Wallace on the tackle list, but the former JUCO transfer will now need to be a leader for the younger corners. Depth: Nevada transfer Chris Handy has impressed the coaching staff with his athletic ability and should push for a starting safety spot. JUCO transfer Josh Okoebor missed last year with a knee injury but is back now, even if the injury is still slowing him down. Clarence Simpson flashed potential as a freshman but suffered through an injury-plagued sophomore year. He voluntarily sat out spring practice, but now is back and working towards playing time. A huge option at strong safety, 6'6" 215lb Chris Hemphill will provide some depth behind Wallace.


CB - Brian Hickman. 52 tackles, 1 INT, 8 BrUp, 1 FR. - Returning Starter.
CB - Paul Long. 23 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 4 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
SS - Bernard Pollard. 96 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 5 BrUp, 2 FF. - Returning Starter.
FS - Kyle Smith. 76 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 BrUp, 2 FF. - Returning Starter.

All four starters for Purdue return, but it is a bit of a mixed blessing. The obvious benefits of continutity and returning experience are slightly negated by the fact that these four allowed 240 yards per game through the air last season (for comparison, ND gave up 280 yards per game) and only totaled 3 interceptions. Those numbers should improve this year, but perhaps not drastically. Hard hitting Pollard (right) lead the team in tackles last season and should be a leading contender to do so again if he can keep his mouth shut. Smith was third in tackles (it's not always a good sign to have both safeties in the Top 3 in tackles) and has great size for free safety at 6'4" 216lb. Long entered the starting lineup after an injury to the previous starter so doesn't have quite as much experience as the other starters. He is a bit of a safety playing corner at 6'2", but should be much improved after going through all of fall camp as the starter. Hickman is an experienced senior, but has been picked on before by opposing quarterbacks and will give up the occasional big play. Depth: Pushing Hickman will be Zach Logan, who earned praise from Coach Tiller for his play this fall and will be a big plus for Purdue's depth. Torii Williams was looking like he might beat out Kyle Smith at free safety but was injured and now will redshirt. True freshman Jason Werner has a shot to earn some playing time in his place. Fabian Martin was praised as the most improved corner and will start off the year backing up Paul Long.


CB - Justin Wyatt. 40 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 INT, 7 BrUp, 1 FF. - Returning Starter.
CB - Terrell Thomas. 9 tackles, 2 INT, 2 BrUp.
SS - Darnell Bing. 63 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 2 INT, 7 BrUp, 2 FF. - Returning Starter.
FS - Scott Ware. 16 tackles, 1 BrUp.

The Trojan defensive backfield will rely heavily on it's excellent pair of safeties to lead a unit that had a few rough spots last year. However, a fair number of those inconsistent performances can be attributed to nagging injuries and now that everyone appears healthy, the Southern Cal secondary should be a force for the Trojan defense. The marquee name is Bing (left), who is not only one of the fastest players on the team, but also one of the best safeties in the nation. He's a huge hitter with the speed to cover any receiver. With his shoulder issues seemingly past him, he is poised for a monster season. Joining him in the category of ready to go is Scott Ware, who is also past various injuries that limited him last season. The former JUCO All-American has impressive size for a free safety at 6'3" 220lbs. At corner,Wyatt is now healthy and ready to be a lockdown corner. He isn't the biggest corner at 5'10" 185lbs but his speed and experience will help him considerably. Thomas lacks experience so he will have to rely on his teammates for support and leadership. Still, at 6'2" 195lbs, the sophomore has plenty of size and a bright future. Depth: Losing Eric Wright to off-the-field issues hurts the team depth, but there are a number of talented underclassmen who should see the field this year. Senior John Walker hasn't played much during his time in LA, but will be the nickel back while Paul Harris, who recently sprained an ankle, should see time in the dime as a corner . Freshmen Kevin Thomas and Cary Harris also might see the field given Carroll's penchant for playing freshman early and often.


CB - Nate Soelberg. 41 tackles, 1 INT, 5 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
CB - Chris Hale.
L. Katback - Spencer White. 50 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 2 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
R. Katback - K.C. Bills.
Cougar - Dustin Gabriel. 19 tackles, 1 INT.

The Cougars have fought through an injury-filled fall camp that saw 11 different defensive backs miss practice time with injuries. This makes picking starters a bit difficult for head coach Bronco Mendenhall and even moreso for this preview. BYU's 3-3-5 defense relies on a number of defensive backs with double safties called Katbacks and a Cougar back which is basically a strong safety type who lines up all over the field. The problem for BYU is that only two defensive backs have much experience at all. White is one who does have more than a few starts under his belt and will start at one of the katback spots. The other experience player is corner Soelberg (right), who won the Mountain West 100M dash title in track in 2002. The other starting corner spot is still being contested, but Chris Hale seems to have the upper hand at the moment. The converted receiver will need to quickly get used to his new position. The right katback spot is still up in the air with K.C. Bills recently having a good showing in fall camp. Gabriel has been injured during fall camp, but once healthy should take the Cougarback position. Depth: If Gabriel can't go, look for David Tafuna to play in his place. Quinn Gooch is fighting Bills for the starting Katback spot while Justin Robinson and Kayle Buchanan are just trying to get healthy.


CB - Jason Allen. 123 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 INT, 5 BrUp, 2 FR, 3 FF. - Returning Starter.
CB - Roshaun Fellows. 39 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 INT, 11 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
SS - Antwan Stewart.
FS - Jonathan Hefney. 65 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 10 BrUp. - Returning Starter.

The Volunteers finished dead last in the SEC last year in pass defense but after a trial by fire 2004, three starters return and aim to improve the Tennessee pass defense. As the leading tackler in the SEC last season, Allen (left) is going to have very high expectations for this season as he moves from safety back to corner. Fellows was named a Freshman All-American last season for his performance and led the team in pass deflections. It's safe to say this season will see even more production from the returning starter. Another Freshman All-American last season, Hefney will move over to the starting free safety spot to make way for Allen at corner. He was the 4th leading tackler on the team last season which is impressive for a player who checks in at 5'10" 174lbs. Stewart was scheduled to start in 2004 after starting 5 games in 2003, but a torn ACL put him on the shelf for the year. His return this season is a huge boost to the Vol defense. Depth: Corey Campbell registered four interceptions last season and will be a quality backup at the safety position, assuming he doesn't become the outright starter. Sophomore Antonio Gaines has the lead for the nickel back slot and will push Fellows for the starting gig. Adding to the young and talented theme, Tennessee brought in a handful of big name secondary recruits. Demetrice Morley has already impressed the coaching staff and will see time at either safety or cornerback this year while Adam Myers-White provides nice size at 6'3" and will fight to see time at free safety.


CB - Jeremy McGown. 91 tackles, 2 BrUp. - Returning Starter.
CB - Greg Thrasher.
Rover - Keenan Little. 12 tackles, 1 BrUp.
FS - DuJuan Price. 16 tackles, 3 INT, 2 BrUp.

The secondary was supposed to be a big strength of the Navy defense, but a last minute defection will hurt a unit that still figures to be one of the better ones on the team. McGown (right) was a productive safety last season that finished 4th on the team in tackles but now will move over to help out at cornerback. While the position switch isn't always easy, he's expected to be a quality starter. Thrasher is the fastest guy on the team, but does not have much experience. How quickly he picks things up will determine how effective this unit can be. Price has to replace the team's leading tackler from last season and has the size at 5'11" 217lb to be a sure tackling free safety. One of the better prospects in the backfield, Little will start at the rover position after being the primary nickel back last season. Depth: The team depth took a hit when starting corner Hunter Reddick transfered to Maryland. Greg Sudderth is a young player with plenty of potential that could be the starting free safety come the Notre Dame game. He turned down full rides from Maryland and Georgia Tech to attend the Academy which speaks highly of his athletic ability. Rashawn King had a solid camp and now is the primary backup to McGown.


CB - Tanard Jackson. 56 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 BrUp, 1 FR. - Returning Starter.
CB - Steve Gregory. played WR in 2004
SS - Dowayne Davis. 7 tackles.
FS - Anthony Smith. 85 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 3 INT, 4 BrUp, 1 FF. - Returning Starter.

Syracuse is another team looking to improve on an awful 2004. The Orange secondary finished 90th in the nation and now much replace two starters. Jackson (left) has solidified himself as the #1 corner but still needs to work on not letting up the big play. Gregory was one of Syracuse's best corners in 2002 and 2003, but was shifted to wide receiver in 2004. Now back at corner he worked his way up the depth chart during the fall and regained his starting slot. Smith is a big hitter at free safety and one of the better safeties in the Big East. He will be a leader of the Orange defense. Sophomore Dowayne Davis seems to have finally taken over the starting spot at strong safety, but his position is far from safe. Depth: Pushing Davis is Reggie McCoy, another sophomore with limited experience. DeAndre LaCaille lost the starting corner job to Gregory but will likely be the nickel back for Syracuse. Thomas Whitfield and Marcus Clayton will likely fight it out for playing time when the Orange use a dime formation.


CB - T. J. Rushing. 36 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 BrUp, 1 FR.
CB - Nick Sanchez. 2 tackles, 1 INT.
SS - Brandon Harrison. 45 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 BrUp, 2 FR. - Returning Starter.
FS - Trevor Hooper. 13 tackles, 0.5 TFL.

Early on, Stanford's pass defense is looking like a weak spot for this year's defense. Two starters return to a position that finished 96th in the nation last year. Rushing (right) is an exciting athlete and a weapon on special teams, but has never translated that to becoming a top shelf corner. He has experience with 8 starts to his credit over a 3-year period, but now will have to produce each and every game against the other team's best. Sanchez is the least experienced of the group with only 2 tackles on his career total so he will need to be ready as other teams will throw his way early and often. The second safety named Brandon Harrison that the Irish will face is the only returning starter for the Cardinal secondary and will to be a leader for the rest of the group. Hooper actually started 11 games in 2003 at strong safety but did not play much last season and now has been moved to free safety where he will start. Depth: Tim Sims is still adjusting to the position after moving from wide receiver and most likely will start out as the nickel back. Former walk-on David Lofton is backing up Hooper at free safety where his 6'4" 220lb frame is a big bonus. Sophomores Carlos McFall and Wopamo Osaisai.

2005 Opponent Secondary Analysis and Ranking

Really, when I started on this position I thought it was going to be far deeper and more challenging than it now appears. Sure the occiasional All-American is going to line up across from Quinn; most notably Bing and Allen, but on the whole the opposing secondaries aren't that impressive. Eight of the eleven teams return two or fewer starters.

What all this means is that we may see even more passing than I had orignally thought. The Pitt game will be interesting in terms of watching the wide receivers. If our receivers are able to get separation from the Pitt corners coming out of cuts or position themselves to get between the defender and the ball consistently, it could be a very good year for the ND passing offense as Pitt has an above average secondary.

Now, cornerback levels aren't the only thing standing between Quinn and a record-breaking season as I haven't even mentioned vitally important things just as defensive coaching and defensive line pass rush. But once that ball is in the air, most of those things go out the window and it comes down to which player, the receiver or the defender, is going to be in a better position to catch the ball. Given the inexperience on a bunch of the teams the Irish face in 2005, I'd like to think our veteran receiving corps will had an advantage in most games.

Here's my take at ranking the opponent secondaries. I think it's safe to say there is a legitimate dropoff from Purude at #5 to Washington at #6. Pitt, Michigan, and Purdue are all fairly close, but the Huskies and teams below them all have serious questions mark in the talent and depth categories.

1. Tennessee - Experience, production, talent, and a very deep bench.
2. USC - By the time they roll into South Bend, they could easily take the #1 spot.
3. Pitt - Probably the best corner tandem the Irish face. Average depth.
4. Michigan - Starting spots are still up for grabs between multiple talented athletes.
5. Purdue - Experience is there. Now just need to shut down opposing receivers.
6. Washington - A decent mix of experience and talent. Transfers help depth.
7. Syracuse - If Gregory reverts to 2002 form, this group could move up a spot or two.
8. Navy - Impressive showing for a position that usually is a weak spot for Navy.
9. BYU - Soelberg and White are a good tandem. Rest are unknowns.
10. MSU - Smith keeps the Spartans out of 11th place. Little to no depth here.
11. Stanford - Some decent athletes, but a lack of experience and depth.