Tom Zbikowski wanted a chance this fall to earn the starting free safety spot. The Buffalo Grove, Ill. native was set to compete with returning starter Quentin Burrell for the position. So far, it's been a one-man race with Burrell being limited with a knee injury, and Zbikowski has gotten plenty of reps this fall.
"You do get a few more reps, but it's all part of two-a-days," Zbikowski said of his extra reps due to Burrell's injury. "If you're not feeling anything, then you're not working hard enough. Just got to get the legs back and keep moving forward."
Burrell appears to be back in the thick of things recently and Zbikowski says nothing has changed as far as the competition.
"They've just said that it's going to be a competition," Zbikowski said when asked what the coaches have told him about the free safety position once Burrell comes back. "The best player is going to play so you've just got to keep going. They're going to try to get the best 11 on the field and you just hope you are one of those 11."
Learning the free safety position has been the hardest adjustment for the former USA Today first-team All-American.
"It's only my second year at DB," said the former Golden Gloves boxer. "You're always learning. Just trying to get everything down. Not only as a free safety, but knowing what the other safety is doing, knowing what the linebacker is doing, just knowing where you're help is.
"I think just the offenses we play is what's hard to understand. How much shifts they have, how much motion they show and how many formations they give you, the routes are kind of the same but they're giving you a different look to try to confuse you."
So far this fall, we've seen sophomore Freddie Parish playing with the first team at strong safety and Zbikowski playing with the first team at free safety. We've also seen a number of cornerbacks playing with the first team. That suggests to us that none of the corners have stepped up and grabbed a starting position at this point.
"Sometimes you've got to mix and match to get the best four out there," Zbikowski said when asked if there are clear starters at corner. "Some work well together. We're still mixing and matching and we've got a little time. We know there's a question mark over our head. It's only making us tighter."
The question mark over their head will not just be with Irish fans. We expect every offense will try testing the young Irish secondary. Zbikowski says Irish defensive back coach Steve Wilks is trying combat that by getting his young secondary to play physical on the field.
"I think coach Wilks is trying to instill that in us because, like I said before, there is a question mark," Zbikowski said of playing physical. "If there is, we've got to bring an attitude that we don't think there is a question mark and we're going to prove everyone wrong.
"If you're banging on receivers and hitting them every play, they're going to want to stop catching the ball. Mike Williams is big, Braylon Edwards is big, that's just the type of receivers we play. We've just got to keep banging on them until they don't want to catch the ball anymore."
Speaking of Wilks, we've noticed that Wilks is much more vocal on the field than his predecessor, Trent Walters. Zbikowski believes the first-year defensive backs coach brings an enthusiasm that will be contagious.
"Coach Wilks is a younger coach who's really, really intense," the former Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year said. "He relates well to us. Coach Walters knows his stuff really well and taught me a lot. I think having both of them as coaches has been good for me. I think the intensity factor is probably the biggest thing with coach Wilks. He wants us to play with a very high level of intensity. It's more of an enthusiasm he wants us to play with."
Zbikowski has spent all of fall camp battling the Irish offense. We asked the super sophomore his thoughts on the Irish offense this season.
"We're really battling each other every day," Zbikowski said. "The defense is having a good practice and then the offense will have a good practice. The receivers we have, the backs we have, the tight ends, the offensive line is a lot better, with Brady, I really don't see too many teams stopping them. There are just too many weapons."
The waiting game now begins for Zbikowski. The next few nights will likely be restless. He, and many other Irish players will await word on where they stand on the Irish depth chart. The Notre Dame coaching staff will start preparing for their first game against BYU on September 4th and starters will have to be named very soon.
"It raises your level of play—it's got to," said Zbikowski when asked if he has to turn it on the next few days at practice. "It will either be good or bad, but you've just got to keep playing hard.
"You do think about it. When you have time off, you try to relax, but you do think about it. You just go over and over in your head what you need to do to have a good practice. It's tough waiting but that's football."
Make no mistake, Zbikowski wants to start like any player, but he says he'll survive if he isn't named starter after fall camp.
"I'll just have to contribute in any way I can," Zbikowski said. "Whether it's special teams, dime package, kickoff return, whatever I can to get on the field."