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August 13, 2010
When Darrin Walls looked in the mirror that was the 2009 season - which for a football player is game film -?he didn't like what he saw.
Walls missed the 2008 football season when he left Notre Dame during the fall semester for personal reasons. One year later, the man considered the best cover cornerback on the roster by his sophomore season was a shell of the Darrin Walls of 2007.
"I think that year off threw me off a bit, but I don't make excuses for anything," said Walls, who is now in his fifth year at Notre Dame. "I just didn't play the way I should have played, and that's just on me. That's something I want to work on this year."
Call it Walls' year of atonement.
In fairness, there were few players last season that excelled on a Notre Dame defense that ranked in the lower 25 percent of most defensive categories. Irish opponents averaged 452.2 yards total offense over the last four games, and 234.6 yards rushing over the final three.
Walls, along with fellow cornerbacks Gary Gray, Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil (who has graduated), were caught in the crossfire and never settled into consistent level of play, save for Gray's emergence in the second half of the season.
The cornerbacks have found a comfort zone in a system that should allow the defensive backs to make more plays on the ball.
"Last year we'd blitz a lot, everyone knows that, and we played a lot of man (coverage)," Walls said. "When you play man, you really don't have very many opportunities to make a play on a ball or intercept a pass.
"Now, when you're sitting in a zone, you can read the quarterback and react. We don't have to think as much. We all play fast and we know what we're doing. That's one thing that has helped us a lot."
Walls also is taking a more studious approach to playing his cornerback position.
"Recognizing splits, formations, studying the offense?I think I could have done a lot more of that last year," Wall said. "This year everyone is doing that, including myself. We know we can be a great defense. We've just got to know offenses and know formations."
Walls and his defensive back mates are adapting to a new position coach, Chuck Martin, who didn't need much time watching the Pittsburgh native to know he had a special talent in the mix.
"He has the experience, and the game is a little slower for him because he's seen a lot of things," said Martin of Walls. "He's not as antsy about things because he's been through a lot of the fires. He's had some ups and some downs and has grown from it, like we all grow from winning and losing.
"We're expecting big things. He's a talented kid. He's a smart kid. He's got the intelligence and God-given ability to be a really high producer on our defense. He's a very focused kid, so we're expecting him to have an excellent year."
Walls is using the difficulty he experienced in 2009 season as his motivation.
"I hold myself to high expectations every year," Walls said. "Last year wasn't so good for me. That's just a starting point of where I want to go from here.
"Me, personally, I just want to play the way I know how to play. Grasping concepts and learning offenses has helped me a lot. Everyone on the back end holds himself accountable."
Mr. Walls, meet clean slate.