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Secondary improving every game

Pat Leonard | Thursday, September 16, 2004

Notre Dame has given up 78 rushing yards in two games, and the Irish are only 1-1. But no cause for despair exists on the defense after handing defeat to No. 8 Michigan.

After surrendering big passing plays to Brigham Young, the secondary has fed off a hungry line and linebacking core to already make evident improvements.

“I’d give us a B-minus,” cornerback Preston Jackson said. “We struggled a few times the first game, but we bounced back and made some plays. In the second game, we were getting better and better. And as long as we correct our mistakes and gain some confidence, I expect we’ll be an A-plus by the end of the season.”

Michigan star receiver Braylon Edwards caught 12 passes but no touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Chad Henne often had to throw underneath to receivers much like Quinn had done the week before.

“We held them without a touchdown until that last drive,” strong safety Tom Zbikowski said. “So if all you can do is kick field goals …”

The sentence finishes itself.

Zbikowski [four tackles] and free safety Quentin Burrell [six], along with Jackson [five] and cornerback Dwight Ellick [six], combined Saturday to support the efforts of their front seven.

“I think we played more sound football against Michigan,” Jackson said. “We were a lot more disciplined, [and] we attacked the ball more when it was in the air. We actually played more like the wide receivers when the ball was in the air, and I don’t think we did that in the first game.”

Zbikowski got the start against BYU and Michigan after pre-game releases showed senior Lionel Bolen as the starter with Freddie Parish as his back-up. Zbikowski is perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the defensive backfield.

“Tommy has performed well for us,” defensive backs coach Steven Wilks said. “He has things to learn, but I am truly pleased with the way he has played.”

Seniors Carlos Campbell and Mike Richardson enter the game in nickel and dime situations to aid the pass coverage, but the leadership for the secondary exists in the starting rotation.

“[Preston Jackson] is a true leader, not only with the secondary but the defense as a whole,” Wilks said. “He’s a smart football player. He puts himself in position to make plays. I’m waiting to see him continue being the type of football player I know he can be.”

Jackson scored on an interception return against BYU late in the game to give the Irish a chance, and he continued to step in front of passes last weekend to end plays and drives.

“I worked hard this spring … and summer to get myself faster and stronger and get in better position to make plays,” Jackson said.

Though the secondary receives due recognition for its performance against Michigan, the freshman Henne did not test Burrell and the corners downfield like BYU was able to do. Michigan State could try to exploit the most likely weakness in an otherwise improved defensive backfield.

“That’s one of the things we emphasize and we work on each day in practice is playing the deep ball, putting ourselves in position to make a play on the deep ball,” Wilks said. “It’s a concern, but it’s something that’s not a worry. We put ourselves in good positions at times … we just have to make a play on the ball when we’re in the air.”

The win against Michigan somewhat redeems the week one letdown for the players, but that does not change preparation for a Michigan State team that always is ready for Notre Dame.

“Our guys understand this is one win,” Wilks said. “Nothing that we did last week is going to help us win this week. We have to play to the level of our competition and do the things we know how to do to win this football game.”


u Senior linebacker Derek Curry was named to the 2004 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Good Works Team Wednesday. Curry is one of 11 Division-I athletes to be named to the annual team that represents community involvement and leadership.

Curry has been a three-year volunteer for the Student-Athlete Advisory Council Pediatric Oncology Christmas Party. He has volunteered at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of South Bend and the Robinson Community Learning Center, among other activities.