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Football: Brown, secondary determined to bury past ghosts

Chris Khorey | Thursday, April 19, 2007

It’s a scene that is burned into the memories of Notre Dame players, coaches and fans alike: quarterbacks like Michigan’s Chad Henne, USC’s John David Booty and LSU’s JaMarcus Russell completing long passes time and time again against the Irish secondary.

But new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Corwin Brown is determined to put those painful memories in the distant past with a secondary that is one of the most experienced units on the 2007 Irish roster.

“Everyone needs to play a little better back there, especially at [safety],” Brown, a former secondary coach with the New York Jets, said in an interview April 4. “If you make a mistake at safety, the band’s going to be playing. And if the band plays too many times, somebody’s coming off the field.”

And players like rising junior safety David Bruton are excited about Brown’s new scheme and his no-tolerance approach to failure.

“It’s a lot more laidback this year,” Bruton said. “There’s not a lot of thinking. I have a chance to make a play.”

Notre Dame returns two starters at defensive back – rising senior cornerback Terrail Lambert and fifth-year Tom Zbikowski – and another player, fifth-year Ambrose Wooden, who started in 2005 until an injury in the Michigan game slowed him for most of 2006.

Zbikowski, who is also Notre Dame’s punt returner, has six career interceptions and has scored touchdowns three different ways – punt returns, interception returns and fumble returns.

But what really sets him apart, according Brown, is his fiery demeanor, something the coach would like to see more of in the other defensive backs.

“You have to play smart, you have to play error-free, and you have to play with passion and intensity,” he said. “And across the board, everyone back there has to do that [more] with the exception of Zibby.”

Zbikowski, who will enter his fourth year starting next fall, has already been named a captain for the 2007 season.

“He’s earned and deserved at this point to be kind of considered the leader back there,” secondary coach Bill Lewis said.

At the other safety spot, vacated by the graduation of Chinedum Ndukwe, things are much less clear. Rising juniors Bruton, Ray Herring and Kyle McCarthy and rising sophomores Sergio Brown and Jashaad Gaines are all contending for the spot.

Lewis said most of those five have been working out at both safety positions, in order to maximize flexibility in the defensive backfield.

“We’re kind of rolling guys to both sides because what we eventually want is the eleven best guys on the field,” he said.

Bruton said the competition has benefited everyone involved.

“It’s helping us as individuals,” he said. “We’re trying to get on the field and trying to get better. It’s friendly between all of us, but it’s business on the field. May the best man win.”

Lewis said that competition may continue well into next season, once he and Brown see who responds in a game situation. But in order to make the best decision, he said, the coaching staff is trying to create as many game-like situations as possible in practice.

“The one thing about the NFL is you have four preseason games that are truly practice games to get better,” he said. “We don’t enjoy that luxury.”

At corner, Lambert returns after starting most of last season. He made 40 tackles and was second on the team with three interceptions, including two against Michigan State, one of which he ran back for the winning touchdown.

Opposite him will most likely be Wooden, who appeared in nine games and made 21 tackles during his injury-plagued 2006 campaign. In 2005, Wooden was the full-time starter and was third on the team in tackles with 74. He also had two interceptions.

When the Irish go to five and six defensive backs, Brown and Lewis expect to send out some combination of cornerbacks rising senior Leo Ferrine, rising sophomores Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil and early-entry freshman Gary Gray, if he recovers enough from the injury he sustained earlier this spring.

But the coaches aren’t ruling out using a safety at nickel or dime back.

“Usually it’s a corner,” Lewis said. “But if the next best guy is a safety, I want the next best guy to be on nickel.”