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Ready to be unleashed

Pat Leonard | Friday, October 1, 2004

Cornerback Shane Walton batted down John Navarre’s two-point conversion pass attempt. Then, he intercepted the Michigan quarterback on a last-minute, desperation drive. Walton’s plays sealed the victory over No. 7 Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium.The 2002 secondary – composed of Walton, Vontez Duff, Gerome Sapp and Glenn Earl – led a team with little offensive firepower to a 10-3 season and a Gator Bowl appearance.Walton collected seven interceptions on the season. Earl, Sapp and Walton finished in the top five on the team in tackles. The defense intercepted a total of 21 passes.In short, the Notre Dame secondary of two years ago made plays.Meet Preston Jackson, Dwight Ellick, Tom Zbikowski and Quentin Burrell.After a slow start against Brigham Young – who notched three deep pass completions – the 2004 Irish secondary has become the unifying link in the chain the defense has symbolically, and physically, carried around their necks.”Being in the secondary is not just about covering receivers,” Jackson said. “You also have to come up and make the hit, the tackle, when the time presents itself. And when you get a hand on the wide receivers and you beat them up a little bit, it starts making them look around.”Opponents now cannot look around any part of the defense, as the emerging secondary compliments a strong line and linebacker corps to form one of the more formidable defenses in the country.

The causeNotre Dame recruited most of the talent lurking in the defensive backfield before Steven Wilks arrived to take the job as defensive backs coach. But in his first year under head coach Tyrone Willingham, Wilks’ presence did not take long to influence the secondary play.”He’s a very aggressive coach, always upbeat and energetic,” Jackson said. “You need that kind of energy to coach a group of guys like us. Because of the nature of the position, we can become lackadaisical at times when the ball isn’t thrown [our way] every play. So when you have that coach who always gets you on your toes, he keeps you going and makes sure you’re playing at your best.”Wilks is in his 10th season as a college assistant coach, most recently coaching the defensive backs at Bowling Green. In 2003, Wilks helped Bowling Green junior defensive back Keon Newson lead the Mid-American Conference in forced fumbles (6). All-American cornerback Janssen Patton led the league in interceptions with seven. The Falcons ranked second in the MAC in both total defense and scoring defense.Backup Irish safety Freddie Parish acknowledged the aspects of Wilks’ coaching that earned him such success.”He and [defensive coordinator] coach [Kent] Baer have tried real hard to put us in positions to make plays,” Parish said. “So I think they went about that in a good way, and doing that each week is a hard task but they’ve been able to put us in those good positions.”Notre Dame surrendered 37 points to Florida State last season. The Irish gave up 45 points to rival USC. Most of the points came in the air.So what is it about Wilks that has the Notre Dame secondary so improved? Jackson said aggressiveness.Parish said Wilks preaches doing “the little things.””He stresses fundamentals,” cornerback Mike Richardson said.Members of the secondary do not have to agree on the exact main message and methods Wilks employs, but they do have to agree on his positive influence on the final line of Irish defense.

The effectThe 2002 Notre Dame defense – the same one with Walton’s seven interceptions and a record amount of turnovers – forced 17 fumbles and recovered 12 of them. This season, the Irish have forced 15 fumbles and recovered 10.”You may say we’ve surprised a lot of people, but I don’t think we’ve surprised ourselves,” Wilks said. “And that’s one of the things if you watch each and every one of them, they’re not surprised in where they are right now. And they also will tell you they’re not where they need to be. We’re still getting better each and every week.”But the secondary play thus far, to the outsider, has been a pleasant surprise.Just ask Jason Teague.Two weeks ago, the Michigan State tailback was carrying the ball on second-and-10 deep in Notre Dame’s territory when Zbikowski blew up the Spartans’ option play, ripped the ball from Teague’s hands and returned the so-called ‘fumble’ 75 yards for the touchdown. And just like that, the score was 14-7, Notre Dame.”That’s our approach. That’s Notre Dame defense right there,” Wilks said about creating turnovers. “That’s how we’re going to approach each and every week. Our main goal is to try to be physical … with receivers and create turnovers. And with that mindset as you can see the last couple of weeks, Zbikowski [and] Dwight Ellick being physical, going for the football [and] making things happen. It’s benefited us.”Notre Dame’s defense has scored only one touchdown on a turnover, but the defense has forced 16 turnovers that have led to 52 of the 115 total Irish points.Ellick has intercepted two passes. Zbikowski, Jackson and Richardson have all intercepted one. They are forcing turnovers. But true to Wilks’ fundamental approach, the secondary is also doing the most crucial of tasks for a final line of defense – making tackles.In 2002, Earl [81], Sapp [70] and Walton [68] wrapped up opponents in the backfield and on pass plays. The 2004 defensive backfield has been no different. After the first three leading tacklers on Notre Dame’s defense – starting linebackers Mike Goolsby, Brandon Hoyte and Derek Curry – the following top tacklers rank, in order: Burrell [21], Ellick [20], Zbikowski [20], Jackson [15] and Carlos Campbell [14].”We know if we miss the tackles, teams are going to make us pay for it all day,” Ellick said. “We’ve been emphasizing wrapping up and driving through people.”Wilks emphasizes aspects of play in practice, but individual players have to do their parts. Ellick has been the epitome of such a player.”Dwight has improved tremendously, without a doubt,” Wilks said. “I think Dwight has accepted a challenge that I put on him each and every day … He’s playing the deep ball. He’s challenging it, trying to go up and compete. And he’s doing it in practice so therefore it’s showing up in the games. He’s trying to be more physical at the line of scrimmage and, definitely for us, coming up and making plays on the run.”

The game planRun-stopping was contagious on a defense that averaged only 85 yards per game allowed on the ground in its first four games. The game plan this week, then, against a team with a Heisman candidate quarterback and one of the nation’s most potent passing attack, is to – stop the run?”I think the most important thing every week … is to stop the run,” Wilks said. “That’s what we have to do first, try to make these guys one-dimensional. You say, well they’re going to throw the football anyhow. I think they’re pretty good running the ball too, so we have to at least take that away from them and force them into spreading the field and throwing the football and putting ourselves in a good position to make plays.”Richardson and Campbell will enter the game Saturday when Notre Dame goes to nickel and dime pass coverage situations, which should be often against a spread Boilermaker offense.Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton has thrown 13 touchdown passes in three games. He has thrown zero interceptions. But just as the Irish have not seen a quarterback like Orton, Orton has not seen a secondary like Notre Dame’s.”We’re looking forward to this,” Zbikowski said. “They’re saying he’s the best quarterback in the nation. They got a good receiving corps, a good offense. But we’ve got a pretty good defense, too. “So we’re going to be looking to prove something, especially in our house.”