While some fans might be concerned about the secondary, Steve Wilks says he sees a lot of talent. "The overall talent is great," said Wilks of his secondary. "We have got a bunch of great guys back there. I think they are improving. One of the things we are talking about is doing the little things right. Being technically sound, being fundamentally sound. That is what I have seen so far. The guys are doing a great job with adjustments. Talent wise, we have the speed, we have the size and we have the ability, we just have to be able to contain it and bring it together every day."
With so many new faces to watch, we asked Wilks how he could teach and still work on the overall picture of the secondary. "The biggest thing that we try to do, we try to coach off the film because the most important thing is for those guys to be able to get reps, that is how they are really going to learn. We try to structure practice where those guys are getting as many reps as they can and then being able to come in here and coach off the tape. One of the great things about Burrell and Jackson being out this spring is it has allowed those younger guys to get more reps which I think is going to benefit us once the season gets here. For those guys to be able to get into a live scrimmage, 7 on 7, is going to benefit us in the long run."
Ambrose Wooden is a new face in the secondary. Wilks says Wooden has talent, but has a lot to learn. "He has definitely improved from day one. I think it is a big transition for him, but I think right now he is more hindered by learning the defense so now his athletic ability is not being able to show because a lot of times he is out there thinking to much and not being sure of himself. Eventually, once he gets the defense down, we'll see his athletic ability. I think he has good feet, he has a great change of direction but at times he's hindered because he's guessing."
Another new face to the secondary is Chinedum Ndukwe. Ndukwe certainly has the size and Wilks likes his aggressiveness. "The one thing about Nedu, when he reacts and goes he is going full speed. We are constantly telling him to stay up because he is just so aggressive. He's going to be real good. He's one of the guys who definitely caught my attention and once he gets the defense down and understands exactly what's going on, the complete package, he'll be a good football player us."
With so many inexperienced players, we asked Wilks if he felt they had enough guys who are ready to play in nickel and dime situations. "I think we do, I really do. I think it's a transition that we are going through. These 15 days of spring is going to get us better. I think Jackson, who has been our nickel player, is a great football player. He's small, but he puts himself in good situations to make plays. Richardson has stepped up and caught my eye on several occasions, I think he has progressed and he is becoming a great football player. Dwight, he played last year, he is a quality corner. I think he has grown in the past two weeks; he's stepping up and making plays out there. Carlos has also impressed me. Overall, we do have the guys who are going to able to get out there and get it done."
Another player who could see action is Isaiah Gardner. Gardner is probably the most athletic corner on the Irish squad, but the switch from playing tailback to corner has been a struggle according to him. We asked Wilks if half the challenge with Gardner will be getting him into a defensive mindset. "That's one of the things we talk about in the meeting room and is what I challenge Isaiah with all the time, just working on the little things because I truly believe that the little things are going to put you in a position to make the big plays. He's improving and he has accepted the challenge to try to get better each and every day."
Most Irish fans believe Freddie Parish will be the starter at strong safety in 2004. Wilks says he believes Parish will challenge Lionel Bolen for the starting spot. "Oh most definitely I think he can. The thing Freddie needs to do right now is add a little bit more eye discipline, to be able to read his keys and put himself in a better situation reacting to plays. That's one of the things we talk about and are working on in drills, giving those looks that he needs to be a better football player. He's constantly working on the little thing as well. He has great closing speed, very physically strong when he hits you. We have just got to make sure that we are getting the little things right to put him in that position to make plays."
Another player who has really improved this spring has been free safety Tom Zbikowski. Wilks has been very impressed with Zbikowski. "There is no question about it. Zbikowski has definitely caught my eye and I think he is doing a great job of picking up the defense. He works hard every day; he's a guy that goes full speed. Occasionally he gets his eyes caught in the backfield, peeking a little too much but for the most part he's definitely stepped up and making things happen."
There is no question the Irish have talent in the secondary. The only question will be if they will be ready to play in 2004. We agree with Wilks that having Jackson and Burrell hurt might be a blessing in disguise. The secondary could surprise in 2004 with some sound coaching. Wilks seems up to the task in the little that we've seen of him.