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Tom Zbikowski: Tough, ‘Zibby’ style

Pat Leonard | Friday, November 17, 2006

Editor’s note: This story first ran Sept. 16, 2005.

The offensive player in him just wouldn’t shut up. Tom Zbikowski needed the ball, and he needed it now.

It had been since high school that Zbikowski had run an offense, when he played quarterback, safety and returned kicks at Buffalo Grove High School in Buffalo Grove, Ill. But one touch of the ball was all he wanted.

Never mind that he had already intercepted Michigan State quarterback Stephen Reaves to set up the first Irish touchdown on Sept. 18, 2004.

On a routine Michigan State running play to tailback Jason Teague, with the score tied 7-7, Zbikowski zipped through the line, tore the ball from Teague’s hands and bolted 75 yards for the end zone before even Teague could say, “Who’s that guy?”

Everyone knows now.

The 5-foot-11, 208-pound strong safety made nine tackles and intercepted Michigan quarterback Chad Henne at the goal line last Saturday. He is the most experienced defensive back in a secondary that, though early in the season, seems to have made huge strides from a rough campaign last year.

And to top it all off, Zbikowski was named special teams captain for this week’s game against the Spartans because of his contributions on punt returns.

“Tommy is one of the real leaders of our football team,” defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said. “I don’t imagine there’s anything that Tommy does that he doesn’t do competitively.”

As Notre Dame attempts to end Michigan State’s winning streak in South Bend, one of the “real leaders” of the Irish has a message to convey.

“Them coming in and winning four straight in our place is really not acceptable,” Zbikowski said. “You can’t let teams come into your place and win at home.”

And like that, “Zibby” – as they call him nowadays – has developed a Keyshawn Johnson-esque attitude that says ‘Throw me the damn ball,’ per the title of the former Southern Cal receiver’s book. Except Zbikowski doesn’t say he wants the ball.

He just takes it.

Zibby the student

Zbikowski’s classroom is not always in a school building, with 8,000 other undergraduates and textbooks. His classroom, and that of his teammates, is also the room where he watches film; where coaches dissect the past week’s game; where head coaches show tape of mistakes, and mistakes only, in past years’ losses.

Irish head coach Charlie Weis showed his squad similar film of Notre Dames’ last four home losses to the Spartans this week. But, as Lewis describes, Zbikowski has the toughness and ability to respond to such motivation and encourage teammates to do the same.

“Tommy tries to do everything the way he’s coached to do it,” Lewis said. “He’s very easy to coach.

“What is so important, and what I appreciate about him, is he takes and goes from the classroom to the practice field and can take things from inside [to the] outside. You talk about a game plan, [and] he can go out on the field then and start to work on executing it.”

The strong safety’s discipline and work ethic are contagious and evident. Though he redshirted as a freshman and has only played one full season for Notre Dame, Zbikowski gained the reputation as a confident and experienced player unusually quickly, simply because people noticed his style.

“He’s not a boisterous guy, but it’s very easy for his teammates to see what he’s all about,” Lewis said. “Because everything he does on the field he does full speed.”

That speed was fast enough to gain recognition as Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois Zbikowski’s senior high school season, when he threw for 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns, rushed for 1,287 yards and 23 touchdowns, racked up 41 tackles and made three interceptions.

USA Today tabbed him as a first-team All-American. The Chicago Sun Times labeled him the Chicago area player of the year. And Notre Dame made him one of their top recruits.

Right now, fifth-year senior linebacker and defensive captain Brandon Hoyte is already a leader on defense. But Zbikowski’s command in the secondary also distinctly benefits the younger players and the entire defense – he called the defense’s practices before the Michigan game “sloppy.”

“It’s not just his confidence,” Weis said. “It’s his understanding of playing.”

Zibby the teacher

Zbikowski could have walked onto the practice field in the spring, turned to face the quarterback, looked to his left and right, and felt completely lost.

He was the only starter remaining in the defensive backfield, albeit one that surrendered too many passing yards and touchdowns through the air last season. Zbikowski instead saw the new season, with the new coaching staff, as an opportunity.

“Whenever he sees something that I could possibly be doing better, he’ll mention it,” said starting free safety Chinedum Ndukwe. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. He’ll step up to say ‘Maybe you need to take that one more step when you hit someone’ or ‘Take that extra step when you’re backpedaling.’

“He knows what he’s doing back there. He has a good football mind.”

Ndukwe is not only new to the starting secondary. He is new to defense altogether. The former wide receiver, who caught touchdowns from Brady Quinn at Dublin Coffman High School in Ohio, is still getting used to tackling rather than catching.

But as Weis has observed through spring practice, fall practice and the early season, the coach believes Zbikowski has had an obvious positive influence on less experienced players like Ndukwe.

“Somebody who’s been out there and who’s seen things happen at full speed – changing every week – is different than someone who just goes through it in training camp,” Weis said. “I think when you have that settling force that checks you in and out of the right coverages and adjusts formations [like Zbikowski does], it really takes some of the pressure off you that you have to be the sole adjuster, especially when it comes to the secondary.”

Zbikowski said he believes his role is to get his teammates ready on a week-to-week basis, much along the lines of his coach’s mentality. They’re on the same page, as teachers and as competitors.

Zibby the player

Football is his sport, sure. But Zbikowski is also a veteran boxer who takes hits as well as he gives them.

He competed in the Golden Golves program beginning at age nine, compiling a 60-13 amateur record and earning a national rank. He was also a Silver Gloves national finalist in 1998, ’99 and 2000.

His multiple talents, within football and without, distinguish Zbikowski as an athlete and – as Lewis describes him – a competitor. Though the experience in the ring is completely separate from his efforts on the field, the strong safety found a correlation.

“[Boxing and football] are two different sports,” Zbikowski said. “But I guess boxing has always helped me in all my aspects [of football]. When you’re winning, you’ve got to know how to survive without getting knocked out.”

Notre Dame finds itself in that exact predicament Saturday against a team that has had the Irish’s number in Notre Dame Stadium. Despite coaching and win streaks and rebounds from unsuccessful seasons, it takes attitude to reverse trends, win games and prove a point.

Enter Tom Zbikowski.

“What [Michigan State has] been saying in the media, they don’t really have any fear when they come in to play us,” he said. “But we’ve got to put fear in them.”

And as the Notre Dame defense grows, on the shoulders of a young man who stands under 6-feet tall, so will the abilities of a player who still has a long time to improve – scary, isn’t it?

“I think as we go down the road, every week I’m going to raise the bar on Tommy and expect more of him,” Lewis said, “because I think he’s got that kind of ability.”