Bye week grades: the secondary


Grade: C+

Summary: We will probably learn a lot more about this unit against the 21st-ranked passing attack of Matt Barkley and USC this Saturday. For now, the 67th-ranked passing defense has been, well, OK. Fifth-year safety Harrison Smith has been a tremendous leader as the Irish's lone season captain, setting the tone for the unit, particularly over the past four games following an 0-2 start. And he is tied for 30th nationally in pass break-ups, with seven. Cornerback Robert Blanton has been a phenomenal, versatile threat, unafraid to blitz and having a knack for making the big play when this unit needs it most. He has one fumble recovery, two interceptions, a sack and six tackles for loss.

But it is impossible to forget the fourth quarter of Week 2 at Michigan, when the defense gave up 28 points and, more specifically, an 86-yard touchdown drive in 28 seconds to close out loss No. 2. This came after Tommy Rees seemingly bailed the defense out by leading a 61-yard touchdown drive in 42 seconds to take the lead.

This unit has obviously been in the spotlight because of that performance, one that came in primetime on a national stage against a big rival. But it is also open to more criticism, and more throws, given the Irish's terrific run defense. I wouldn't put any stock in 300-yard games like the one Michigan State's Kirk Cousins had against Notre Dame in Week 3, since there was nowhere for the Spartans to run and most of the yardage came on intermediate routes. But I'd be curious to see what happens this week against a star wideout like Robert Woods, who will have an experienced quarterback throwing to him. There's plenty of time for this unit to shore up some loose ends, and coming up with a big performance in another primetime matchup against a rival will go a long way in easing the concerns of many.

The backups: Zeke Motta hardly counts as a reserve, as he has seen plenty of time with Jamoris Slaughter at safety. Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson each have nine tackles, and Lo Wood has 0.5 tackles for loss. The three saw extended action in the Irish's rout of Air Force and are likely the future in the defensive backfield.

Previous report cards:


Defensive line

Offensive line


Running backs

Wide receivers

Tight ends