Notre Dame 2006 Position Analysis: Secondary

David Bruton (SO) – 6’2″, 187
Bruton did not see too much action in 2005, recording just 13 total tackles and breaking up 1 pass. He did appear in 10 of Notre Dame’s games however, mostly on special teams where he established himself as a reliable kickoff coverage tool. Against Purdue he pinned the Boilermakers inside their own 20 three times with tackles, and he had 5 tackles overall in that game. He was a one of the top 30 players coming out of Ohio and recorded 8 interceptions his senior year at Miamisburg high school. Bruton has excellent speed, he lettered in track in Miamisburg as well. Bruton will be the backup free safety behind Chinedum Ndukwe and will provide much needed depth to secondary.

Leo Ferrine (JR) – 6’0″, 186
Ferrine played in every game for Notre Dame last season, making 20 total tackles and had 1 interception which he returned for a touchdown against Syracuse in the 34-10 laugher at Notre Dame Stadium. He also made a big play in the game against Tennessee this past fall, recovering a fumbled kickoff, which led to a Notre Dame touchdown in a 41-21 Irish victory. Leo, like many of the Irish corners, has good size and speed, and established himself as a serviceable player if any corner goes down in the future. He has some big play ability, and if he is dealt a special teams role, he will make the most of it and be the best special teamer he can be. Last year Ferrine was the nickel back for the Irish, but when the two deep depth chart was announced for the Georgia Tech game, Ferrine’s name was not on it.

Ray Herring (SO) – 5’10, 199
Herring did not see any action for the Irish last year as a freshman until the Washington game, but he eventually impressed the coaches enough that they made him a regular on special teams. He made 5 tackles on the season, and appeared on special teams 107 times. He has put on some weight since reporting to South Bend as a freshman, hoping to make up for his lack of height at a position that good height serves as an advantage. He is a very athletic player, playing wide receiver, safety, and corner throughout his high school career. Like David Bruton, he lettered in track as well. Ray will continue to be a special team regular for the Irish this coming season, as well as backing up Tommy Zbikowski at the strong safety position.

Terrail Lambert (JR) – 5’11″, 188
Lambert was a highly rated cornerback California – rated on ESPN’s list of the top 100 players at number 85. Offers came flowing in from schools like Florida State, Ohio State, and Southern California. So far however, he has not seen much meaningful playing time for the Irish. He played in every game in 2005, but even so it was mostly special team appearances and he only logged 8 tackles on the year. Lambert is a guy who has the tools to be a very good corner; terrific athletic ability and great speed. He was clocked running the 40 between 4.3-4.4 many times. The coaches certainly know he has these tools and know what he is capable of us. They know so much that when Mike Richardson went down last season due to injury in spring, Lambert got reps with the first team. He hasn’t used these tools yet however. Last season when the Irish secondary was slim on depth and they were looking for a playmaker to stop the pass, Lambert was unable to prove that he was the one. In his defense however, this could be because he was learning his 2nd defensive scheme in as many years with the Irish. He will get a shot this season to push last year’s starter Mike Richardson for a starting cornerback role and will start the season as Richardson’s primary backup. The 2 freshman that I will talk about later have the talent to start as sophomores, so the time is now for Lambert to earn a starting role.

Kyle McCarthy (SO) -6’0″, 189
McCarthy did not see any action in his first season with the Irish, but he was a key practice squad player. McCarthy was asked to role play on a few occasions in practice this year, including the week leading up to the Navy game. He was put in at quarterback to help the Irish prepare for the option-happy Navy attack. Coming out of high school he was basically a player that could do everything you wanted him to. During his senior year offensively, he rushed for over 1,200 yards, and threw for over 500 more. Defensively, he recorded nearly 70 tackles and picked off 5 passes, taking a pair to the house. These are not numbers of the course of a career, but a single season, which I find amazing. McCarthy can play anywhere in the secondary…safety, corner, you name it and he will do it. He is a guy that coaches love working with because of his open attitude. Kyle will challenge for a backup safety role in 2006, but his impact will be felt more on special teams.

Chinedum Ndukwe (SR) – 6’2″, 210
Last season Chinedum Ndukwe looked very out of place at the safety position. He weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 230+ pounds, which was about 10 pounds more than starting Notre Dame linebacker Maurice Crum weighed. Charlie Weis felt that if he slimmed down the results would be noticeable…so he told Ndukwe to lose some weight. Chinedum did, and he is down to 210 pounds at the moment, and has set a goal of 205 pounds for the September 2nd opener against Georgia Tech. Last season Ndukwe had a hand in 7 turnovers caused by the Irish defense. He forced a fumble, picked off 2 passes (one of which was against USC in the end-zone) and recovered 4 fumbles. Many felt that he was exposed in the Fiesta Bowl last January, getting burned for 2 touchdowns in the match up against the Buckeyes. The first came on a 56 yard Smith-Ginn touchdown pass…the second on a Fiesta Bowl recording setting 85 yard Smith-Holmes touchdown play. On both plays Ndukwe blew his assignment. He also bit on the play action more than he should have that game. Chinedum is reporting to practices 20 pounds lighter than he was last season, and this should make him a quicker player who can stick with a guy like Ted Ginn or a guy who has the speed of Santonio Holmes. He will start at safety and how he performs there will make like a domino effect. If he plays well, the heat will be taken off guys like Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson. If he struggles, the whole secondary could struggle along with him. He will make a big time impact for the Irish this season, that impact could be good or bad.

Mike Richardson (5th) – 5’11″, 193
Richardson has played in every Notre Dame football game since his sophomore season. Last season however, he struggled at times, getting turned around in coverage and getting beaten in 1 on 1 situations. This could be just because Richardson just had an off year, or it can be, and probably was, because of the lack of pass rush the Notre Dame defensive line was able to endure on opposing quarterbacks. That being said, he wasn’t a bad player at all, recording the fourth most tackles on the team, recording 3 sacks, and picking off 3 passes. He will compete with Terrail Lambert for the starting cornerback spot this season opposite of Ambrose Wooden and all indications are that the spot is his to lose.
Playing extensively with the Irish for the past 2 seasons, Richardson will definitely have the advantage with his experience when the coaches have to choose which one will start. Richardson was thought by many colleges’s to be a better wide receiver than a corner, but when Notre Dame scooped him up in 2002, he was eager to help them out defensively, and in some ways even during his senior year, is improving. He is a very bright kid, and wither he is a starter or not, his impact will be noticed on the Irish this upcoming season.

Ambrose Wooden (SR) – 5’11″, 197
Wooden was Richardson’s running mate last season, starting all 11 games at the corner position. Unfortunately for him, the thing people mostly think about when hearing his name is the unbelievable 4th and 9 play last October 15th against the Trojans. Aside from that, Wooden had a pretty successful year. He was 3rd on the team in tackles, picked off 2 passes and broke up 5 more. He was a top 15 corner and an ESPN top 100 player coming out of high school, showing that his potential has yet to be reached. He is a great hustle guy, making numerous plays that went somewhat unnoticed in crucial games. This included stopping a Michigan touchdown week 2 which would have made the game a 1 score contest. Ambrose stopped the receiver inside the 5 yard line, and quarterback Chad Henne fumbled the next play, helping the Irish to a cut throat, grind it out 17-10 win at then #3 ranked Michigan. He also made a similar play against Purdue weeks later, stopping a receiver inside the 5 when it looked like a sure touchdown…Purdue would also fumble the next play.

Wooden will start at cornerback for the Irish this season barring injury, and his play may depend on how the defensive line plays. Wooden’s job will be a lot easier if pressure is put on the quarterback, so the Irish coaching staff will likely try to do this in order to help out Wooden and the rest of the Irish secondary. Ambrose has great speed and above average size, so the tools are there. He is a player that many experts think will bust out in 2006 and become a corner that can cover the best wideouts in college football. Only time will tell if the experts are right, but as of now, Wooden is a good corner who is only going to get better in the future.

Tom Zbikowski (SR) – 6’0″, 208
Zbikowski is the most notable name out of anyone in the Irish secondary, and probably the best known name besides Brady Quinn on the whole Irish team. When he’s not in the boxing ring knocking out punks wearing Buckeye jerseys, he is on the football field making plays. He is the biggest playmaker the Irish have on defense and special teams bar none. He scored 4 touchdowns this past season – 2 punt returns against Southern California and Tennessee and 2 interception returns against Syracuse and Tennessee. He picked off 5 passes in all last year which led the Irish, and was a steady, explosive punt returner with an average of over 14 yards per return.

His hustle is second to none…as you may recall he laid a big hit on Reggie Bush as the Heisman winner slowed down inside the 20 to let all the SC band know how proud of himself he was. Although the play was still a touchdown, it displayed the “never say die” attitude of Tom. He also made a play that could have turned a nightmare Fiesta Bowl for the Irish into a possible victory. Trailing 21-13 in the 3rd quarter to the Buckeyes, the Irish were getting manhandled and OSU was inside Notre Dame territory looking for more. Smith completed a pass, which was then fumbled and returned for a touchdown by Zbikowski…making the game 21-19. This play was called back however, when the officials said that the pass was incomplete, and the receiver never had full control of the ball. Had that play stood, who knows what could have happened during that game.

He is also extremely durable; starting in 23 strait games for Notre Dame, and has become the heart and soul of the defense during that span. If there were a knock on Tommy Z, it would probably be labeling him as too intense. If you establish a running game against the Irish early, you can get Zbikowski to bite on a play action pass. He also had a hard time picking up assignments at times last year as well. Overall, Zibby is a great safety that can stuff the run, and when he is fully aware of what he is doing, he can be a great cover guy as well. With another season like last year in 2006, he can earn the right to be a first day pick in April’s NFL draft.

Sergio Brown (FR) – 6’2″, 184
Sergio Brown is coming into the Irish fold this fall as a confident freshman that won’t accept being on the sidelines; he actually thinks he can help the Irish right away defensively. While this might not be too likely, he could come onto the team and help right away on special teams, but only time will tell if that happens. Brown is one of the top secondary prospects in the Midwest, known for his great instincts and athletic ability. He can leap with the best of them; he recorded a 38-inch vertical leap consistently at workouts and can hang with any wide receiver if a jump ball is thrown his way. His ability to read a quarterback is what takes him above and beyond, as few can know what a quarterback is thinking faster than Brown. Sergio is a guy that can someday be a premiere safety in college, and with his sponge like attitude and ability to soak up information when it is delivered to him, it won’t be long until he plays extensively for the Irish.

Jashaad Gaines (FR) – 6’0″, 205
Gaines is a player that coaches’ wish was their son. He will never be outworked or out hustled on the football field, and always goes that extra inch to get what he wants. He’s a physical safety who was often described as “intimidating” by his opponents and coaches. He visited with Nebraska last winter, but decided to come to South Bend, seeing the future of the team as bright as it is and seeing that he can be a big help to the secondary. In his junior year of high school, Gaines tore up his knee, and that scared some colleges away from heavily recruiting him. Despite the injury, Charlie Weis and the Irish went hard after him, and Gaines will be out to prove that it was the right decision.

Leonard Gordon (FR) -5’11″, 195
Gordon is a versatile player who can play safety or cornerback when called upon. He is a player that is quick on his feet, uses his head very well, and does a great job of chasing down ball carriers. His form as far as tackling goes is absolutely textbook, after watching some video of him I haven’t seen any player with better technique in a very long time. Gordon punishes ball carriers too with his pure power and strength. He benched nearly 300 pounds while working out for colleges. Gordon is a player in which I see being a special teamer for the Irish next season and not just a special teamer, but also a guy that can really make a name for himself on special teams. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a few game changing plays on the kickoff coverage team this coming season.

Raeshon McNeil (FR) – 6’0″, 175
One of the elite cornerbacks coming out of North Carolina, Raeshon McNeil is coming into South Bend this season with a legitimate chance to get some playing time as a reserve corner this season for the Irish. McNeil was ranked coming out of high school as a top 10 corner by most recruiting websites, and in some cases a top 5 corner. During the All-American Bowl last January he was displaying his shut down corner style and game changing ability. He had a 65-yard fumble return for a touchdown, which changed the course of the game.

He has the tools to become a shut down corner at the next level…good speed and a very flexible body. He doesn’t shy away from contact either like some corners have become notorious for. In fact, sometimes his love for contact and hitting gets him into trouble, as he gets eager on play action fakes from time to time and misses an assignment. Overall though, he is a great talent who should be a terrific player for the Irish the next 4 years. McNeil is listed along with Terraill Lambert as a backup corner behind starter Mike Richardson on the first official depth chart.

Darrin Walls (FR) – 6’0″, 172
Out of all the secondary recruits the Irish brought in this past season, Darrin Walls is probably the best and most recognizable one. Out of Woodland Hills Pennsylvania, Walls was getting looks from division I schools since his early junior season. After receiving news that Darin was going to be Irish, the university of Southern California called him to lure him away…the phone literally hand to be hung up on the Trojan coaches. Darin, like his future running mate McNeil, is expected to be a shutdown corner at the next level and to compete for some playing time as well. Walls is a great guy in 1 on 1 coverage, going whole high school games without seeing a ball thrown his way. He can stuff the run when called upon, and has terrific flexibility. Many Irish fans were alerted when Walls’ stats went down during his senior year at Woodland Hills, but in Walls’ defense, he played much of the season with a separated shoulder and still played very well. Walls along with McNeil will be a star within 2 or 3 years in South Bend, ending the secondary woes here once and for all. For now Walls is listed as the #2 corner behind Ambrose Wooden and will see the field early in his career.

Overall, this secondary has a ton of upside. With guys like Walls, McNeil, Gordon, and Brown coming in, this secondary could be set for a while. As far as the present, I think the secondary will be improved. Hopefully the pass rush can blossom with more blitz packages and improved talent. Tommy Z got another year under his belt starting at safety, and will only improve. Starters from last year like Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden will have to get better because they are being pushed this year for playing time. The secondary will not dominate people this year at least, but I see them holding opponents at bay and allowing the Irish to win games like the Michigan State game last year as opposed to losing them in a shootout. If the Irish can put up 30 points during a game this year, I fully expect them to win it…something they didn’t do twice last season.

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