Aug. 28, 2003
by Cory Walton
Irish secondary coach Trent Walters seems pretty calm and collected for someone who lost two of Notre Dame’s best players after the 2002 season in consensus All-American Shane Walton and veteran safety Gerome Sapp. After replacing the dynamic duo, Walters has reason to be a little nervous, but as hard as he may try, he also can’t get rid of the smile on his face.
“Losing Shane is a big loss because of his interceptions and his leadership. Gerome is also a big loss because he quarterbacked our secondary last year. Our goal is to replace those guys with players who are going to play just as well and I think we might have that,” Walters says.
Is Walters David Copperfield in disguise? How could he possibly pull that off?
It doesn’t hurt that his two returning starters, seniors Vontez Duff and Glenn Earl, happen to be an All-America cornerback and one of the hardest hitters in college football, respectively. It also doesn’t hurt that the two new starters on the field in the Irish secondary aren’t exactly inexperienced in their own right. Senior cornerback Jason Beckstrom and senior strong safety Garron Bible have seen plenty of playing time and own five monograms between them.
In 2002, Duff emerged as one of the most exciting cornerbacks in the nation. The 6-1, 192-pound Texas native was named a third-team All-American by the Associated Press. Duff recorded 36 tackles, including one tackle for loss, intercepted one pass for a touchdown, recovered two fumbles and blocked a kick. Cornerback, however, wasn’t Duff’s only fort?. He also returned one kickoff and one punt for scores during the 2002 season and is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the nation.
“Vontez Duff is an excellent athlete. He’s our big-play guy,” Walters says.
Duff’s cornermate this season is three-year monogram winner Beckstrom. A biceps injury forced the 5-10, 188-pound Beckstrom to miss all of last season, but he played in every game of the ’01 as a reserve, recording 13 tackles and one interception.
“He’s rebounded from his injury very well. He had a great spring, and he made steady progress the whole time,” Walters says.
“He brings speed and athletic ability to the team. I expect him to perform very well.”
At the free safety position, Earl is looking to uphold his reputation as one of the game’s most ferocious hitters. Last season, the 6-1, 205-pounder from Lisle, Ill., was the second-leading tackler for the Irish, with 81 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, two fumbles forced and two recovered. According to Walters, Earl is the blue-collar guy in the ’03 secondary.
“He comes in with not a lot of fanfare, doesn’t talk a lot, but plays hard and is very productive. He gives us toughness.”
Bible, a valuable reserve the past two seasons, emerged as the starter next to Earl after spring practice. Bible, at 5-10 and 197 pounds, moved to the secondary before the ’01 season after starting his Notre Dame career as a running back, and has seen action mostly in nickel and dime formations before starting two games for Sapp toward the end last season. In ’02, the Kingwood, Texas, native recorded 32 tackles, including one for loss, and recovered a fumble.
Walters is also counting on an experienced group of reserves to contribute in the secondary this season. Senior Preston Jackson, a smart player who can play multiple secondary positions, will compete for time at cornerback, along with junior Dwight Ellick, whom Walters says could surprise some people this season. A pair of juniors, Quentin Burrell and Lionel Bolen, will contribute some minutes at the safety positions in ’03.
“Right now we are determining each player’s role in the secondary. Once the roles are established, I expect the back-up guys to always be ready, always strive to be number one and be ready to perform when called upon,” Walters says.
One major question surrounding the secondary is where is the leadership coming from this season after the loss of Walton and Sapp, who were both taken in the 2003 NFL draft. No matter where that leadership comes from, the secondary knows they have a standard to live up to after last season.
It seems as if Walters and his group have the drive and determination to fill the voids and have another fine season. No wonder Walters is smiling.