Former All-America Shane Walton lauds Julian Love, Notre Dame pass defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

It felt more like a trend at the time than the splendiferous outlier, and one that did not end up aging well.

The way converted Notre Dame soccer player Shane Walton and bookend All-America cornerback Vontez Duff, a converted running back, scooped and scored and defended and returned and made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks back in 2002 ended up being a standard no one could meet.

Until Julian Love came along.

Though the current Irish junior cornerback fell one checkmark shy of unanimous All-America status, he did become Notre Dame’s 86th individual to earn consensus honors this week, having garnered first-team honors from four of the five requisite organizations that determine unanimous/consensus status.

He also ended a 16-year positional drought of Irish cornerbacks of garnering All-America recognition of any kind since Duff as an Associated Press third-teamer and unanimous selection Walton did so when Love was 4 years old.

“That’s tough,” Walton said of what had been the longest positional All-American dry spell on the defensive side of the ball.

“I understand a little bit when (coach Charlie) Weis was here. He was recruiting offense, and that was the focus. But that’s only five years. And at the same time, it’s Notre Dame. We should have guys in the secondary up there for top players in the nation.”

Six players for No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) made at least one All-America list. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, center Sam Mustipher, tight end Alizé Mack and safety Alohi Gilman were the others.

Offensive guard Alex Bars was on that trajectory until the fifth-year senior’s season ended Sept. 29 against Stanford, a game in which he tore two knee ligaments.

What separated Love from becoming Notre Dame’s 30th unanimous All-American, following 2017 offensive guard Quenton Nelson, was a second-team designation from the American Football Coaches Association, the fifth and final of the big five teams to be released.

Still he joins a small fraternity of Irish cornerbacks collecting unanimous or consensus All-America honors in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present): Clarence Ellis (1971), Luther Bradley (1977), Todd Lyght (1989-90), Jeff Burris (1993), Bobby Taylor (1994) and Walton (2002). Lyght, like Walton, was a unanimous selection.

“He’s doing a great job,” Walton said of Love. “Their whole secondary is. They’re remarkably improved. You can tell they have athletes and they know what they’re supposed to be doing.

“I feel like they know what their weaknesses are. It’s their second year in that system, so you don’t see missed assignments. But they do play a very different style than we did.”

Walton’s group finished 10th nationally in pass-efficiency defense, and their calling card was creating turnovers. ND’s 21 interceptions in 2002 was three off the national lead. Walton had seven of them. The Irish coaxed 33 turnovers overall. And they had to.

That defense, 13th in total defense, was paired with the No. 108 total offense. Duff and Walton, both return men as well, led the parade of defensive scores with five touchdowns between them.

The current ND squad has 12 interceptions heading into its College Football Playoff semifinal matchup with No. 2 Clemson (13-0) on Dec. 29, but is fourth nationally in passing efficiency and has yielded five fewer passing TDs than the 2002 group did.

Walton, 39, is an assistant athletic director, defensive coordinator in football and head soccer coach at his high school alma mater — The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Calif. He made the short drive to watch the Irish in person at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego on Oct. 27.

Because the Irish were playing triple-option Navy that night, Walton only got to see the ND defense have to defend 12 passes. But he keeps an eye on them on TV on a regular basis.

“They let you throw as much as you want underneath and expect you to make a mistake,” Walton said. “They’ve been very successful with that.”

Though Walton finished his career under coach Tyrone Willingham, it was coach Bob Davie who allowed him to leave a promising future in men’s soccer to walk on in football (he was a second-team All-Big East selection and leading scorer for the Irish soccer team in 1998).

Walton and Davie crossed paths six years ago, per Walton, when Walton called Davie about a prospect at the Bishop’s School that he thought would be a fit at New Mexico, where Davie has coached since 2012. The player ended up at Colorado, Walton said.

“I know he’s coming to Notre Dame Stadium next season,” Walton said of the Sept. 14 matchup between the Irish and Davie’s Lobos. “That’s going to be funny.”

Walton also sporadically touches base with Duff.

“The last time we talked he was back at Notre Dame finishing up his degree,” Walton said. “He was like a little brother to me. He could have been a great running back. But we had so many good ones at the time and we were thin at cornerback. That opened the door for both of us.”

Walton only chose college soccer initially over football, because his scholarship offers in the latter were almost non-existent.

“To be fair to the people who overlooked me, I grew and inch and a half and put on 25 pounds my freshman year in college,” Walton said. “But I played at a small school, and I think a lot of football coaches wondered how that would translate.

“That experience has made me a better coach. So many people are worried about numbers, but I don’t care how big you are or how small you are. If you can play, you can play. I look for guys who are tough and physical, know what to do and have instincts, and can do the things that I can’t coach.”

All-America rundown

Here are the six ND players who earned All-America honors and which teams they made:

• Julian Love, Cornerback: Associated Press (1st), Football Writers Association of America (1st), The Sporting News (1st), Walter Camp Foundation (1st), American Football Coaches Association (2nd), CBS (2nd), The Athletic (1st), ESPN (1st), USA Today (1st) Pro Football Focus (honorable mention), Sports Illustrated (1st).

• Jerry Tillery, Defensive Tackle: AP (2nd), TSN (2nd), CBS (1st), USA Today (2nd), Pro Football Focus (honorable mention).

• Te’von Coney, Linebacker: AP (3rd), CBS (2nd), PFF (1st), Sports Illustrated (1st).

• Sam Mustipher, Center: FWAA (2nd), AFCA (2nd), ESPN (1st).

• Alize’ Mack, Tight End: Sports Illustrated (2nd).

• Alohi Gilman, Safety: PFF (2nd).

Note: The big five All-America teams are AP, AFCA, FWAA, TSN and Walter Camp.

Former Notre Dame All-American Shane Walton had plenty to celebrate during his Irish football career.