Is it speed or technique

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Someone said it to me the other day, which was a day after someone else had said it to me, “The problem with Notre Dame’s secondary is they don’t have enough speed. Look what Ohio State did to them!”
I don’t know if Ohio State is the best example to use. It seems to me Ohio State’s receivers did that to a lot of teams in 2005. But the point still stands: Notre Dame certainly didn’t appear to have enough speed against the likes of Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes. Those guys were running by the Irish defensive backs the whole game.
And yet, is it really a lack of speed, or is it the inability to execute one of the most difficult aspects of football on the highest level of intercollegiate football? I can see both sides.
For example, Chinedum Ndukwe, a first-time starter in the Irish secondary in 2005, weighed 225 when he began the season. While Ndukwe seemed to have a real nose for the football and came up with several big plays, particularly early in the season, most would agree that his pass coverage wasn’t his strength.
So Ndukwe trimmed down to 218 by the spring and reportedly will come to camp in August in the 205-210 range. Why would a safety lose that much weight? Obviously, so he can be quicker and tap into a bit more speed.
Then there’s the example of Mike Richardson, a fifth-year senior this fall who has logged nearly 500 minutes of action for the Irish. Richardson probably runs a legit 4.5-to-4.55 40-yard dash. That’s not slow, but it’s also not among the upper echelon of speedy cornerbacks in the country.
So Richardson obviously isn’t starting for Notre Dame because of his great quickness and speed. It must be his technique.
So what is it: speed or technique?
Let’s look at Ambrose Wooden, Notre Dame’s starting cornerback opposite Mike Richardson in 2005. Wooden had never played cornerback prior to last year, but he moved into the starting lineup. There were growing pains, to be sure, right on through the Fiesta Bowl.
But the problems Wooden encountered were not a result of lacking speed. Wooden is one of the fastest players on the team, a legitimate 4.4. Wooden’s problems, then, must have been a result of his inexperience as a defensive back. His technique was simply not good enough to be a consistent cornerback. If it was, he probably would have knocked away the fourth down pass from Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett.
How about Tom Zbikowski. Have you ever seen Zbikowski return a punt? Looks like he’s got plenty of speed. But Zbikowski sometimes bites too hard on play action fakes, or perhaps he doesn’t diagnose what route the receivers are running and arrives a tad late. Is that because Zbikowski is too slow, or is it because—as good as Zbikowski is—the 2005 season was just his second as a starter. He still has two full years of eligibility remaining.
What about the Irish backup cornerbacks? Why doesn’t Terrail Lambert play ahead of Richardson? Surely Lambert is faster than Richardson. So also, likely, is Leo Ferrine.
There’s a lot of talk about Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil coming in and making an impact in the Irish secondary. They certainly have the athletic skills to do so.
But the odds of Walls and/or McNeil beating out either Richardson or Wooden are extremely high. They may play because of injuries to the starters and the backups. But it’s very unlikely either will move ahead of Richardson and Wooden in 2006, especially in a season in which Notre Dame has a legitimate chance to win a national championship.
If neither Walls nor McNeil start a game in 2006, that doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t as good as we thought they were. Chances are it will be because they simply haven’t mastered the technique or the complexities of the coverages coming from the high school level.
Clearly, you need enough speed in the secondary to compete with the elite receivers in the country. If you have a bunch of 4.6 or 4.7 guys in the secondary, you’re going to get whipped.
But even if you have the speed, you need the knowledge and the technique to go with it. If you don’t have that, all the speed in the world isn’t going to make a difference.
Does Notre Dame have enough speed in the secondary? I believe so, except on those extreme occasions when a secondary gets caught in a bad coverage for the pattern and gets burned deep. But that isn’t necessarily a lack of speed as much as it is poor recognition and reaction.
(Another aspect that could be analyzed is scheme, although I’m not educated enough in that area to offer a learned opinion. The fact that Charlie Weis has entrusted the defense to Rick Minter and the secondary to Bill Lewis says to me that they know what they’re doing when it comes to calling schemes.)
So if Notre Dame’s secondary is athletically gifted enough, and it’s technique and recognition improve through experience—which they should because the starting secondary returns intact—then the Irish secondary should be an improved unit over the 2005 edition.
Mix in a better pass rush, which also should be the case due to the experience along the defensive line, and the secondary improves that much more.
Notre Dame’s issues in the secondary aren’t nearly as dire as some people make them out to be. The inexperience at linebacker is a bigger concern for the Irish heading into camp. Notre Dame’s secondary should be much better than it was in 2006.
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