The regular season is over and the end of the semester has arrived. Here, we grade Notre Dame's 2011 campaign by position. Part eight of the 10-part series brings us to the secondary.
Summary: The Irish pass defense made tremendous strides during the regular season, leaping from 67th in the nation at the season's midway point to a tie for 34th by the end of the regular season. But it is impossible to overlook its fourth-quarter collapse Week 2 at Michigan, ultimately ending in a Notre Dame loss.
Gary Gray received the brunt of the criticism for that one, surrendering the game-winning touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree with 2 seconds remaining. Quietly, Gray put together a nice season in that game's aftermath, however overlooked that might have been. He finished with 60 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Fellow cornerback Robert Blanton had himself a strong season as well, finishing third on the team with 69 tackles, notching eight tackles for loss and recording a pair of picks, both coming near the end zone.
Fifth-year senior and lone team captain Harrison Smith was the anchor of the secondary and, really, the defense, finishing second on the team with 84 tackles and first in pass breakups, with 10. But Smith's impact was felt even more in the locker room, particularly after the USC loss, as he held the team together in wake of defeat and controversial comments from coach Brian Kelly. Opposite him, Jamoris Slaughter all but locked up an invitation to return for a fifth year and next season will be the anchor of a unit that loses everyone but him and Zeke Motta, who split time opposite Smith. Slaughter's versatility was key in nickel packages and he was effective against the run.
As stated earlier, however, this is a unit that was largely responsible for a major collapse at one of its rivals. The main wide receiver of one of its other rivals, the Trojans' Robert Woods, had a great night against it as well, catching 12 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns. At Stanford to close out the regular season, Notre Dame's corners were simply no match for the Cardinal's giant tight ends, who were responsible for three of four touchdowns, though that's to be expected against a team that utilizes its tight ends in the passing game like few other, one that also had the likely No. 1 draft pick throwing the football as well.
Backups: Motta started seven games, hardly falling into this category. The real reserves, however, will need to step up next year, as the unit will have three open spaces. Lo Wood rebounded from getting beat by Woods on a crucial touchdown in Week 8 to record a pick-six against Maryland three weeks later. Bennett Jackson, another candidate to start next season, was featured mostly as a kick returner. Austin Collinsworth played well on kick coverage and on kick returns, bringing one back 41 yards at Wake Forest. He could emerge as a punt-return candidate next season, and the former wide receiver will challenge for a starting spot at safety as well.
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