Young Players Finding Their Way on Defense

Defensive back should see a lot of competition this spring and summer. The Irish will have to find replacements for former starters Vontez Duff and Glenn Earl/Garron Bible. The Irish have some talented but inexperienced players that are hoping to make an impact this season. Irish Eyes spoke with three of them who have played very little defensive back before coming to Notre Dame to get their early thoughts on spring ball and their adjustment to defense.

Mike Richardson has impressed us with his play at cornerback at times during practices. He's a tall corner, listed at 6-1, 188 pounds. "Just get used to playing on the defensive side of the ball," said Richardson of the most difficult adjustment to playing defense. "Learning all the calls and checks, the techniques that I need to get down, that's been the hardest part. Now that I've gotten all that down, it's just a matter of putting it to use on the field."

Richardson now has a new defense backs coach in Steve Wilks. We asked Richardson if he saw a big difference between Wilks and former coach Trent Walters. "They seem pretty similar. They're both pretty intense guys. They both want you to take what they tell and get it right the first time. Coach Wilks seems like an all-around good coach. We haven't spent a lot of time with him yet, but they teach similar things."

Richardson also sees an opportunity with the hiring of Wilks. Wilks doesn't have any preconceived notions as to what a player can or can't do. "As long as you go out and showcase your talent, they're going to play the best people. I just have to do my part and go out and play better than everybody else because I want to be on the field."

We asked Richardson where the coaches have told him he needed to improve the most. "Mainly my quickness. Change of direction has been a big factor—those are the things I'm trying to work on most. Being a corner you have to have quick feet."

Will we see a lot of Mike Richardson on the field in 2004? "I hope so. I'm working my hardest to get on the field. I'm going to do the best I can do and we'll see where that leaves me."

Free safety Tom Zbikowski also is learning to play on the defensive side of the ball after spending most of his high school career under center at quarterback. Zbikowski says he's starting to grasp the position. "Going out there I felt real good," said Zbikowski. "I felt I knew what I was doing. It's unfortunate that Quentin is out, but it helps me out in getting a couple more reps. He's always helping me out and I appreciate his help."

Zbikowski says understanding the defense has been his biggest challenge. "I think just being vocal and knowing all the adjustments. As a free safety you've got to know all the adjustments, you've got to know everyone's position. It's almost like being a quarterback, but just being more vocal and making the right checks."

Zbikowski is also excited about the spring to showcase what he's learned and his new physique to his new coach. "You start off on a clean slate. In the off-season and working with Mickey you get better physically. He'll see us as a difference presence where coach Walters might see us as still as a freshman—he might still have that first impression and that first impression is always a big one. This is going to be my first impression so I'm glad the practice went the way it did today."

The Buffalo Grove, Ill. native says he's been putting in some extra time with the playbook before practices. "It helps out being a quarterback and knowing what the quarterback is thinking and what a receiver is thinking. Angles of tackling and knowing different things, you've just got to go back to the basics. I just hit the playbook right before practice, just going over things, trying to keep it fresh. I think that's helped me a lot and I think it's coming along a lot better."

Will we see a lot of Zbikowski on the field in 2004? "I hope so. I'm going to find a way to get out there somehow, I don't care what it is."

Isaiah Gardner is another freshmen learning to play defensive back. Gardner was an impressive running back coming from Virginia Beach, Va. His speed should not be a factor for not seeing the field. "It was a 4.25," said Gardner of his 40 time this spring. "It felt real good. I probably could've ran faster, not much faster, but I'm in the best shape of my life."

Gardner says he's focused this spring and is gaining confidence. "I just want to go out and win a position. I'm starting to take stuff real seriously. I took winter conditioning real seriously and all the coaches have been talking to me about what I need to do."

We asked Gardner if he's made the adjustment to the defensive side of the ball yet. "I think that adjustment just happened today. It's starting to become clear. At first I was just frustrated with myself. I had always played running back my whole life. I wasn't accepting the fact that I was going to be better off at corner. The whole combine gave me a lot more confidence. Today really boosted my confidence a lot."

Why today? "I felt more comfortable today. More comfortable than I've ever felt at corner. I like the new coach a lot—coach Wilks, he's a really good guy. I learned a lot more from him today than I have in the past."

Gardner says the hardest part of playing defense has been preventing things from happening. "I'd say preventing stuff instead of making stuff happen. It's prevent and reacting. It's a lot different, but it's good, I'm going to make it. The only thing stopping me is me right now. The coaches and even the players have told me that I've got all the tools. I just need to take this seriously, get through this spring, show what I can do and hopefully I'll be starting that first game against Michigan."

The 5-10, 195-pound Gardner says he's taken the example of Vontez Duff as his motivation to be a great cornerback. "Vontez really opened my eyes—it can be done. I've looked at Vontez and I'm trying to work to be as good as him or better than him. All respect to Vontez, but everyone wants to be the best. I'm looking to be the best, get to his level and then work past that."

Where does Isaiah need to improve the most? "I've got to improve on everything. The key thing for me is I've got to get my technique down as a corner. I need to keep building on my confidence, that's half the battle right there. You've got to have that confidence and that swagger."

Gardner also said that adjustment to Notre Dame has also been difficult. Gardner committed to Notre Dame before actually spending time in South Bend. He said South Bend is quite different than Virginia Beach, but he's made the adjustment and is finding his way at Notre Dame. "It's been an experience. It's alright. It's still good people. It has been a real big culture shock. The people here are really nice and good people. It's been a good experience."

All three players will be fighting for playing this spring. We're not sure any will end up starting, but all three should see playing time in the near future. Top Stories