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FOOTBALL:The Primary Secondary

Pat Leonard | Thursday, March 24, 2005

Tom Zbikowski played his first full season as a sophomore in 2004. That was a only a few months ago, when the Buffalo Grove, Ill. native was considered one of the younger players on the defense due to lack of experience at the college level.But with four senior defensive backs graduating and a fresh start under head coach Charlie Weis, Zbikowski could become the tone-setter for the Irish secondary heading into Spring Football.”We’re looking to be the strength of the defense and one of the best in the country,” he said of the defensive backs unit. “I’m up for the challenge, and I think the [younger guys] are up for the challenge, to prove … we can play with anyone.”Such a task would be a far cry from what Notre Dame accomplished last season.The Irish surrendered 281 yards passing per game and were lit up by numerous quarterbacks, including Purdue’s Kyle Orton (385 yards, four touchdowns), Pittsburgh’s Tyler Palco (334 yards, five touchdowns), USC’s Heismann Trophy-winning Matt Leinart (400 yards, five touchdowns) and Oregon State’s Derek Anderson (358 yards, four touchdowns).”A lot of games could have gone different ways … but that’s why you play football and that’s why we were 6-5,” Zbikowski said. “We didn’t get it done.”Bill Lewis, assistant head coach of defense and defensive backs coach, comes way of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins to coach Zbikowski’s end of the field. Lewis sees no point in looking back.”I’m not concerned about what happened in the past,” Lewis said. “We cannot control that. What we’re concerned about is what we do from this point forward with the guys that we have in the program.”The guys Lewis has in the program are young and inexperienced.Zbikowski (70 tackles), Mike Richardson and Freddie Parish IV are the only defensive backs returning who saw significant minutes last season, since Dwight Ellick, Quentin Burrell, Preston Jackson and Carlos Campbell all will graduate.That leaves players like Terrail Lambert, Junior Jabbie, Ambrose Wooden, Chinedum Ndukwe and Leo Ferrine on the current roster.Incoming recruits David Bruton (Miamisburg, Ohio), Ray Herring (Melbourne, Fla.) and Kyle McCarthy (Youngstown, Ohio) will join the group in the fall.Lewis, however, is already confident in his players with the limited interaction he has had.”We’ve had a circuit-type workout where all the players rotate through the seven or eight stations,” Lewis said. “I’ve heard favorable reports about the defensive backs as they pass through other areas … and that’s good to hear, because they have a great attitude as far as working.”Notre Dame’s defense gave up 24.1 points on average last season – a number that could have been even higher except for a solid red-zone defense. But opponents were able to move the ball up and down the field with ease when they resorted to a passing attack.Though Lewis said he is not concerned with the past, last year’s futile attempts at stopping opponent passing games could be one reason he is leaving the starting slots wide open for competition.”I’m not concerned who was on the field and who wasn’t on the field,” Lewis said. “I’m concerned about where we go from here.”Lewis said he would stress fundamentals to his players over grand defensive schemes. He also said he is looking forward to returning to college football, in which defensive backs can jam receivers until the quarterback releases the ball. Compared to the 5-yard contact rule in the NFL, this allows for more physical play. Zbikowski was encouraged by Lewis’ promise to evaluate talent that did not see the field last season along with those who saw significant minutes.”Everyone’s going to have to prove themselves,” he said. “Everyone’s a freshman again.”The statement rings true, as Zbikowski exhibits freshman-type excitement to get the spring rolling.”I think we’ve got a chip on our shoulder right now, and we’re gonna keep that chip on our shoulder until we get to where we want,” Zbikowski said. “This is a young, enthusiastic group with a lot to prove.”