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Secondary questions at the forefront

After practice yesterday, head coach Brian Kelly took to the media and pointed some well-placed headlines toward the secondary. While you’d think it’d be hard for the defensive backfield to forget they had a bulls-eye on their backs heading into the season, Kelly made sure that his DBs -- especially cornerback Gary Gray -- knew he was watching.

“Gary Gray has to play big for us,” Kelly said. “Gary Gray is a guy that has not been consistent enough on a day-to-day basis. At the end of the day, you have Blanton and you’ve got Walls, and you’ve got Gary Gray and those are the three guys that have experience. Other than that, we are tapping into zero experience. So he hears it from me every day. He has to pick up his play.”

I don’t doubt that Gray has been inconsistent in his three days of practice for the Irish, because he’s been inconsistent in his three seasons at Notre Dame as well. That said, it’s hard not to think that Kelly’s sending a message to a cornerback that many see primed to make a significant contribution this year.

If you look back at the Top 25 lists that we compiled before camp opened, Gray ranked as high as 6th on people’s boards, and went unranked on another. (I had him rated as the 22nd best player on the roster.) Interestingly enough, the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen, who has forgotten more Notre Dame football than I’ve watched, predicted last week that Gary Gray will make a run at the Thorpe Award’s Watch List, an award given to the top defensive back in the country, so he’s obviously got some skills in his toolbox.

Largely because it’s more noticeable on the back-end of the defense than at any other position, Kelly cited consistency as the most important thing for the secondary during camp.

“Consistency for me isn’t really about making plays as much as it is a consistency in the way they come to work every day -- focused, locked in, giving a great effort,” Kelly said. “We have good coaches and we are going to put them in a position to succeed, that I’m not concerned with. It’s all the things that I can’t control -- effort, their attitude, all those things.”

Interestingly enough, Kelly cited one of the defense’s least consistent back-end performers last season as being rock solid thus far.

“Harrison probably has been the number one guy in terms of his performance,” Kelly said about the enigmatic Tennessee product. “His play has been steady and consistent.”

Smith’s performance in spring drills and thus far in fall camp may surprise many, but it doesn’t surprise me. There’s nothing you could do to hurt a player like Smith’s development more than jump him back and forth between the secondary and an outside linebacker position. As an undersized ‘backer, there’s a continual need to anticipate and jump plays based on instincts and intuition. At safety, those same instincts and intuition end up turning tight ends like USC’s Anthony McCoy into All-Americans, and help a defense rank 99th in the nation in yards per passing attempt.

With his position now locked in, Smith has embraced the return to the defensive backfield.

“Once the coaches told me I was playing safety and I wasn’t playing anything else... if I couldn’t play safety, I wasn’t going to play,” Smith said. “I like that they told me that. I want that role. And I want to be good at that role.”

While Gray and Smith might have been on Kelly’s radar yesterday, it’s clear the Irish will need better performances from guys like Darrin Walls, Robert Blanton, and Jamoris Slaughter if the defensive is going to reach its goal of being the best in America. There’s no visible proof right now that this defense can do that, but with defensive backs coach Chuck Martin working with the secondary and Bob Diaco coordinating the defense, they’ll certainly have two guys that have a mastery of the system. More importantly, they’ll be two coaches that start fresh with everyone, helping this team move forward from a past plagued by miscues.