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FOOTBALL: ‘Unknown’ Unveiled

Matt Puglisi | Thursday, September 15, 2005

During spring football last April, Irish cornerback Ambrose Wooden was forced to watch as his teammates strapped on the pads and officially kicked off the Charlie Weis era of Notre Dame football. Held out of contact drills while recovering from injury, Wooden never had the opportunity to leave an impression on Weis.

Now, as the Irish prepare for their third game of the season against Michigan State, Wooden is already earning high praise from the coach that considered him “an unknown” five short months ago.

In a contest that saw the Notre Dame defense shut down the high-flying Michigan offense to the tune of only 10 total points allowed – and silence a Big House crowd of over 110,000 in the process – Weis pointed to Wooden as the most notable defensive player.

“The one guy who I have to single out above all the other players was Ambrose Wooden for those couple of touchdown-saving tackles,” Weis said at his Sunday press conference. “He made the one on the 1-yard line which ended up turning into no points, and he also made the one on the 50-yard line, which might have been a touchdown, as well.”

After all the talk this fall about the importance of every player on defense flying to the ball, for Wooden, the effort was second nature

“You’ve just got to pursue, you never know what can happen,” Wooden said. “Everyone thought they were going to score. You’ve just got to run to the ball. You never know what play will decide a game.”

But the player that caught up to and knocked Michigan receiver Jason Avant out of bounds just inches before the goal line, setting the scene for a pivotal Wolverine turnover two plays later, wasn’t sure he’d even be on the field – let alone chasing down Wolverine receivers to preserve an upset bid – just a few months ago.

Despite missing spring practice, Wooden’s work ethic during training camp provided him with the key that ultimately unlocked the door to the starting cornerback job opposite veteran Mike Richardson and the chance to make game-changing plays like those in Ann Arbor.

“He was out there going through some of our individual drills [in spring practice], but he really had no work in our defensive package,” Irish defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said. “But when he came back and we started training camp, he, from the very first minute, was very focused on what he was doing, and he challenged for that starting spot from the very first day. He let everybody see that this guy was coming to work.”

But as much as his own hard work has contributed to both his and the defensive unit’s early-season success, Wooden points to the deep coaching staff as instrumental in his quick development.

“I’ve learned so much just from [Lewis], specifically, but also the whole coaching staff,” Wooden said.

“Just little things – each coach has some aspect of knowledge that they can give you, like tackling or playing the deep ball better. Someone is always there trying to make you that much better of a player.”

And in a position where mistakes are magnified, when they do happen, the coaching staff’s ability to help the players recognize their flaws can make all the difference.

“When you get beat deep, Coach Lewis and [assistant defensive backs] Coach [Bill] Polian are right there to tell you exactly what you did wrong,” Wooden said.

“[Lewis] probably wasn’t watching, but he could tell you exactly what you did at the line to get yourself in that position, that’s how well he’s gotten to know us.”

As far and as quickly as he has come over the past half-year, Wooden realizes his development has only just begun.

“I’m surprised that I jumped in so fast, but I’ve got a lot to learn,” Wooden said.

“I’ve got a lot of ways to go, and I’m just going to keep working hard to try to do the best that I can.”