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Taking ‘safe’ risks

Justin Schuver | Thursday, September 23, 2004

When the Irish offense had trouble putting points on the board during Tyrone Willingham’s first two years as head coach at Notre Dame, it was the defense that often helped pitch in on the scoring.While the team has shown improvement on offense in Willingham’s third season, that doesn’t mean the defense is any less aggressive than it has been in the past. In fact, according to defensive coordinator Kent Baer, it may be even more aggressive.”I like the attitude of this group,” Baer said. “I think they have a little chip on their shoulder, and they want to go out there and prove something to the world, and I really like that in a unit.”I think as long as they keep that edge we’ve got a real chance to keep getting better.”That aggressiveness on defense was perhaps most personified by safety Tom Zbikowski’s 75-yard fumble return for a touchdown during Notre Dame’s 31-24 win over Michigan State Saturday.Zbikowski wrapped up Spartan running back Jason Teague, stripped away the ball and then returned it for the Notre Dame score. As secondary coach Steven Wilks said, that is exactly the kind of play the defensive backs want to try and make each time out.”The one thing that you need to do is make sure you’re in great position and to line up to make the tackle,” Wilks said. “Once you’re in that position we always talk about going for the football, and that’s what happened last week. “Zbikowski was in great position, and he wrapped the guy up and went for the strip and pulled it out. That’s a good job from the standpoint of taking what we worked on during practice and applying it to the game.”Although it’s early, this year’s defense has been compared to the defensive unit in 2002 that played a large part in leading the Irish to a 10-2 regular season record and a trip to the Gator Bowl.That defense caused 25 turnovers in its 13 games, and this year’s unit is off to a similar start with 11 turnovers so far in three games. The Irish have also scored two defensive touchdowns in 2004.”It’s big anytime a defense scores or sets up a score or gives the offense great field position to score,” linebacker Derek Curry said. “It’s definitely our priority. One of the main things we focus on is setting up a score or getting ourselves in the endzone.”While turnovers have been a huge positive for Notre Dame so far this season, the Irish defensive coaches are aware that too much of a focus could be placed on turnovers at the expense of good solid fundamentals.”We always talk about tackling first,” Baer said. “You’ve got to tackle and make sure the guy’s wrapped up, and then you can come in and strip the football. “Some of those turnovers were on tackles, just good solid hits. We weren’t really trying to strip the ball but we were just putting the hat on the ball.”Wilks agrees with the idea that it is important to not lose sight of the fundamentals while pushing the importance of turnovers on the secondary.”The number one thing you must have [to be a good defensive back] is discipline,” he said. “That is a position where you really have to be disciplined in what you’re doing. You always want speed, size, and to be strong, but the most important thing back there is to be disciplined. “You have a lot of guys in this game who have those tools but put themselves out of position and can’t make the plays; discipline is the biggest key in the secondary.”