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Zbikowski leads inexperienced secondary

Mike Gilloon | Friday, August 26, 2005

When named head coach at East Carolina in 1989, Bill Lewis inherited a program that had gone 2-9, 5-6 and 3-8 in the three years previous to his hire. The Pirates had not been to a bowl game since 1978 and had earned a spot in the year-end AP poll only once – a No. 20 ranking in 1983.

When he left East Carolina in 1991, he had just led the squad to an 11-1 record, a No. 9 final national ranking and a 37-34 victory over North Carolina State in the Peach Bowl.

Still, even for a coach as accomplished as Lewis – the first-year Notre Dame defensive backs coach/ assistant head coach (defense) – turning around a secondary that ranked 116th in the country in pass defense in 2004 is no small task.

“All of our guys, both older guys and younger guys, have a lot of work to do,” Lewis said on media day Aug. 8. “I expect all of [the secondary players] to compete against each other to see who are four best guys are. This is as competitive a spot as there is anywhere on the team.”

But the secondary lacks severely in experience. Only two players in the Irish defensive backfield have ever started a college football game – Mike Richardson and Tommy Zbikowski.

The position was depleted even more this off-season with the transfer of junior Freddie Parish IV to Division I-AA Stephen F. Austin State University. Sophomore Junior Jabbie also switched last week from cornerback to running back.

Weis has not released a depth chart, but Zbikowski and sophomore Anthony Vernaglia are the frontrunners for the free and strong safety spots, respectively. Richardson and sophomore Terrail Lambert, who never set foot on the field last season, have a hold on the two cornerback roles.

Zbikowski looks at the lack of experience as something that can be overcome in one sure way – success.

“We’ve got a lot of fresh faces that don’t have a lot of experience from last year,” Zbikowski said. “But if we start off good that confidence is going to build really fast.”

Though scanning the roster might give some coaches reason to go into panic mode, Lewis has remained calm and steady throughout fall camp.

“[Lewis] is actually a patient coach,” freshman safety David Bruton said. “I really enjoy that. He gives us younger guys time to learn because he knows our heads our spinning with all this installment coming in all at once.”

Lewis, with nine years of experience as the defensive backs coach with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, has plenty of knowledge to share with his players. Zbikowski also feels he has an important role as one of only a few upperclassmen in the secondary.

“I’m obligated to help those younger guys,” Zbikowski said. “Those guys with that lack of experience to try to bring them up and help them as much as possible.”

Counting down the days to the Sept. 3 season opener against Pittsburgh since December’s Insight Bowl loss to Oregon State, Zbikowski is set on proving to the nation that Notre Dame is not the program its record might have suggested last year.

“We want to prove it to ourselves,” Zbikowski said. “We’ve put in so much work. The coaches have put in so much work. We deserve to win.”