SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- During the 2008 season, Notre Dame cornerback Darrin Walls sat on the edge of his couch in Pittsburgh watching the Fighting Irish on NBC.
Screaming at his television, he felt hopeless, itching to get back on the field. The closest he came was as a paying customer, stuck in the stands one afternoon.
Gone from South Bend for personal reasons that year, Walls missed the spring workouts leading up to the 2009 campaign before rejoining the Irish in the fall.
Walls had been one of Notre Dame's brightest NFL hopefuls after his sophomore year, but upon his return often looked as stale as the popcorn trapped between the cushions he perhaps wished he had stayed on.
"Taking a couple months off, it was tough to get back in the groove," Walls said after Wednesday's practice. "It was tough; I've known these guys for years now and I knew we had the talent to be pretty good. We just weren't producing the way we should have. It was tough dealing with it."
Walls wasn't the only player to blame for secondary's mediocrity last season, when the Irish posted a pedestrian 6-6 record.
Notre Dame ended the year 86th in the country in total defense, giving up nearly 400 yards per game and slipping 47 spots from the previous two years. Walls, fellow corner Gary Gray and safeties Kyle McCarthy and Jamoris Slaughter finished a revolving-door season in which they allowed just over 227 passing yards per outing, 76th in the nation.
"I think it was the last loss for the seniors (that was the hardest)," the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Walls said. "Watching my classmates go out with a loss. I felt sorry for those guys. We didn't play up to our ability all year and those guys went out on a rough ending."
His career, had he remained on campus two years ago, would have ended the same way. Under coach Brian Kelly's new regime, Walls has another opportunity, and defensive backs coach Chuck Martin is hoping to see more consistency from his players this season.
"I think they're great kids, fun to coach and are real smart," Martin said. "They want to be coached and don't mind being challenged. Darrin is probably the most mature because he's played the most.
"I think they did a lot of good things. But like any team that's 6-6, they were too hot and cold. I could put together a pretty good highlight reel for a guy like Darrin and say, 'Ah, he had a pretty good year.' But you can also put some together where he was struggling. The difference is being that every-down player."
Like when the Irish had Michigan on the ropes at the Big House Sept. 12, then let the Wolverines move efficiently downfield in the closing minutes. Michigan quarterback Tate Forcier capped the comeback drive by hitting Greg Mathews with 11 seconds left as Walls watched from out of position. It was the first real indication that Notre Dame's last line of defense was tentative and unreliable.
"It was hard to let your teammates down," Walls said. "You want to do well for them. So you try to play well for them, not just yourself. [With the new coaches] you need to be broken down. We went 6-6 and that's not Notre Dame football. The players know that and the coaches know that.
"Technique-wise, I know I can be a lot more aggressive than I was in the past. That's something I've really focused on. We are going to be well-conditioned and mentally tough. You already see a difference from last year."