There was something different about the Notre Dame cornerbacks in last week's opening win over Purdue.
The corners wrapped up ball carriers instead of letting them break arm tackles. They battled for the ball and didn't allow any big plays -- Purdue's longest completion went for just 16 yards. Most of all, they just looked ... confident.
That's a big change from previous years when the Irish secondary, and the corners in particular, were much maligned. Notre Dame ranked just 76th nationally in pass defense a year ago and often got burned by the deep ball.
Credit the improvement, at least after one week, to seniors Darrin Walls and Gary Gray living up to their potential. And also to a new philosophy on defense that doesn't ask them to be heroes.
In last year's blitz-happy scheme, the cornerbacks had to take on a lot of man-to-man coverage. This year, head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco make sure that the corners usually have safety help. Only a couple of times against Purdue did the corners find themselves isolated.
"Our corners are in double zone quite a bit," Kelly said. "When that guy is put on an island, I can take my guy and he's going to beat you virtually every time. We don't get into those situations very much. But ... both of them showed to be very solid tacklers on the perimeter. If they can get that, I'll take that over a lock-down corner."
Gray set the tone early, coming up and helping stuff Purdue near the line of scrimmage while tying for the team lead with nine tackles. Later, he batted a ball near the goal line that teammate Ian Williams scooped up for an interception. Always known as a physical player, he responded to a training-camp challenge by Kelly to become more consistent.
"I like to get dirty," he said. "Make tackles and make plays on the ball."
Walls had seven tackles and showed moxie by baiting Robert Marve into an interception. Kelly named him a game captain and called Walls "as purposeful as any player that we've got in the program."
"I feel like I've always come to practice ready to practice," Walls said. "But I think this year has been a different year, knowing I'm the oldest guy and the most experienced guy."
Containing Marve and the Boilermakers was one thing; Michigan and athletic quarterback Denard Robinson brings a whole new challenge. The defensive backs will have to be sound tacklers when Robinson takes off running, and the deep ball won't be as much of a concern. Of Robinson's 19 completions in Week 1 against Connecticut, 16 of them went for 10 yards or fewer. Walls said Robinson is "like another running back out there."
Both Walls and Gray were big-time recruits. Both have had their ups and downs; Walls sat out the 2008 season while Gray left the team after nine games that same year. Notre Dame said both departures were for "personal reasons," but each happened because of mistakes the players made. Gray has also dealt with injuries, while Walls hasn't always performed as well as he could.
"I was highly regarded coming in, but I don't think I've played up to expectations," he said. "But I think I'm on the right track."
There's a sense of urgency with both players in their senior seasons, and the new philosophy could help them erase the problems of the past.
"We don't think about last year," Gray said.
They don't look like last year's cornerbacks, either.