Free safety Tommy Zbikowski returns as the only remaining starter from the 2004 secondary. Zbikowski recorded 70 tackles and one interception for the Irish last season, and will be counted on to lead a young and inexperienced secondary this spring.
"It's been a lot of hard work," said Zbikowski of winter workouts. "People who see our workouts in the morning, they see how enthusiastic our defensive backfield is.
"We've got that chip on our shoulder right now that we have to prove that we can play with anybody. The younger guys have to prove they can play, period. You'll see an enthusiastic group when we get out there."
The Irish secondary was hammered in the final three games of 2004 for an average of 365 yards passing per game, and 14 touchdowns through the air.
"It's almost good that they're younger because none of that really happened to them," Zbikowski said of freshmen corner prospects. "As for me, that happened, and I'm a competitive person. You want to bounce back and prove to everyone you can play. As an individual, I want to be one of the best in the country. As a unit, we want to be one of the best in the country."
Without much experience returning at corner, we asked Zbikowski if he might be tried at corner this spring—a position he originally lined up at when he reported as a freshman.
"It's hard to tell. I think I'll probably be (a) safety, but we're going to go through spring ball, move everybody around, and see where people fit best," Zbikowski said. "It is a different system so we've got to see where people fit best."
While the Irish secondary will have to learn a new defense, the former Gatorade Player of the Year for Illinois says most defenses are comparable so the learning curve shouldn't be unmanageable.
"Most defenses are similar," he said. "(It) Seems like we're dropping a few more in coverage. The coverages are the same, but there's also a lot of smaller differences to them that I think are going to benefit us. We'll see when we play that first game against Pittsburgh."
Also talked about at great length the last few months has been the difference in weight training philosophies between the old regime and the new coaching staff.
"Change is hopefully for the better. It's a new system," Zbikowski said of the winter workout program. "We've been working a lot of different muscle groups. Power lifts, Olympic lifts, heavy squat, heavy bench, we've been busting our butts in the weight room and hopefully it pays off."
The most important change for the Irish will have to be an attitude change. We asked Zbikowski if that had been addressed by the team at this point.
"I think so. The biggest thing is just becoming a team and sticking together no matter what happens," Zbikowski said. "I think the attitude, whether it's "nasty" or whatever, we've been working too hard together. A lot of people came here to win; they didn't come here to be 6-5."
While the secondary will be inexperienced, Zbikowski believes that inexperience will bring a lot of competition this spring—something that can only help the young secondary.
"I'm happy for that because that means the team is going to be a lot better if people are fighting for positions," he said. "You've got to worry about learning the system and getting prepared for next year."People are going to get better because of it. The bar is going to be raised for each individual to prove themselves. I'm excited about spring."
The talented sophomore has had to sit on the sidelines recently while his other sport--boxing—has seen a lot of interest. Zbikowski admits he would've loved to be a part of the new TV series "The Contender," and has had to scratch his boxing itch by putting his boxing skills to good use as a coach for other friends who are allowed to participate in Bengal Bouts.
"I've been watching it. It's a pretty good show. It's been put together pretty well. It would've been great to be a part of," said Zbikowski of the hit show "The Contender." "Bengal Bouts, I had two kids that I worked, they both won championships. I was excited to see them win. It was tough; I wanted to get in there to box."