The Only Way is Up….
Temple, Central Florida, Rice, Western Michigan, Southern Methodist and Middle Tennessee State -- Those are schools that were ranked higher than Notre Dame in pass defense last season. Of the 117 Division I NCAA teams, only TCU was easier to pass one than Notre Dame. I not going to place all of the responsibility for the last season's dismal performance on the players because there isn't a human on this blue rock that we inhabit that can convince me that Indiana or Rice had better secondary players than Notre Dame. New year; new coaching staff and a set of new faces will dot the Irish secondary. Five players from the junior class will play prominent roles in the secondary this season, and it will be Bill Lewis's job to put these players into position to be successful.
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." - Theodore Roosevelt
Ambrose Wooden: After playing quarterback in high school, Wooden started his career at Notre Dame at wide receiver, and then he was moved to cornerback in the spring of his freshman year. Much has been made of the tackle he missed during the Purdue game last season – to the people that continually bring that up, I ask: where were the other ten players on that kick off? A red-shirt freshman, in his first year as a defender, missed a tackle -- time to move forward. Ambrose has three years of eligibility remaining so he will be playing a lot of football for the Irish. Ambrose is one of the top athletes on the team and he has the athletic ability to play wide receiver, but I believe his future will be at cornerback. He has good height and size for a corner; he glides when he runs, and he makes a smooth transition from the back peddle into coverage. Wooden ended up coming on toward the end of last year and he earned some playing time in the Outback Bowl. He would likely have been one of the starting corners on the blue squad for the spring game, but he was dinged up in practice and held out of contact. He is obviously one of the players we will watch this fall. There will be plenty of competition for the starting corner positions, but I think Wooden will be one of the top two corners coming out of fall camp. If someone else steps up, all the better, but Wooden will see extensive playing time on defense this season.
Labrose Hedgemon: Hedgemon initially committed to North Carolina, but had a change of heart and selected the Irish. He was the lone true corner that was signed in this class. He didn't play his freshman year and missed the entire 2004 season. I've been told that he is very excited to be back with the team, and he'd like to make up for lost time and earn some minutes somewhere in the secondary. I haven't seen Labrose play in a long time so I can't intelligently discuss the likelihood that he'll factor into the corner rotation. Hedgemon does have pretty good speed and he plays the ball well. He's another guy we'll watch throughout the fall.
Freddie Parish IV: Parish came to Notre Dame as the No. 7 ranked safety by Scout.com. He played in the opening game of his freshman year against Washington State and then he saw considerable action in other early games. As his freshman year progressed, his playing time decrease. Last season his playing time on defense was limited, but he did make 183 appearances on special teams. The old staff gave Parish the opportunity, but he never put everything together. A new coaching staff at Notre Dame means new opportunities for Freddie. He certainly has the physical tools; he has great enthusiasm and good speed for a safety. He'll knock your head off given the chance, and make big plays. The downside is that he can be too aggressive, which can lead to big plays. Notre Dame needs Parish to step up and he has to do it this year. I expect a veteran coach like Bill Lewis will be able to get the most out of him. I'll be interested to see which position Parish settles in this season. He's played strong (field) safety in the past, but he could really play either side. I'd also like to see him get a look at the nickel corner. Notre Dame needs his infectious, brash attitude on defense and they are a better team if Parish is able to contribute. Parish has to get it done this season.
Tommy Zbikowski: He was rated as Scout.com's No. 6 safety prospect; he was a USA Today All-American, U.S. Army All-Star game participant and Chicago Sun-Times Player of the year. It's hard to imagine a player in having a bigger game than Zbikowski had against Michigan State last season. It was a career game, as he almost single handily won it from the safety position. He had his first career interception, forced fumble, recovered fumble and touchdown against Michigan State. In that game, he stripped the ball from the MSU running back and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. His interception was turned into a short touchdown drive by the Irish offense, and he forced a fumble late in the game to seal the Irish victory right after the Irish offense had fumbled it to MSU. On top of that, Zbikowski recorded a career high, nine tackles. Personally, I would have retired after that game wanting to end on a high note, but Zbikowski went on to finish forth on the team in tackles with 70. He's made a tremendous transition from a high school quarterback to college safety. He did struggle at times in coverage last season, but it was his first season playing and mistakes were expected. I expect him to be fine with the additional reps during the spring and fall. He is a very good athlete with above average speed for a safety and he has very good instincts. I see him as a better strong safety prospect, the position he played last season, because he is solid in run support and a big hitter, but he'll likely be the starting boundary (free) safety this season. Some fans have talked about moving him to corner, but he does not have the quickness or coverage ability to play corner. This is a guy that will get better with time and I expect him to take his game to the next level this year.
Chinedum Ndukwe: Ndukwe is a guy that didn't get much attention when he signed with Notre Dame, but he was difficult to ignore the moment he set foot on the practice field. Ndukwe surprised everyone with this his speed and athletic ability. He started out as a wide receiver where he earned spot playing time as a freshman. He also played extensively on special teams. His sophomore season he was asked to move to the defensive side of the ball, where he quickly adjusted to safety. He didn't play a lot of minutes on defense last season, but again he played extensively on special teams. This spring the new coaching staff asked Ndukwe to make his third position change in as many years, when they shifted him to the apache linebacker position. Many Irish fans welcomed the move, as they had long thought his size and speed were ideally suited for one of the backer positions. The experiment was short lived though. I believe the emergence of Maurice Crum dictated that Ndukwe be moved back to safety. I like Ndukwe in the defensive backfield. I like the idea of a 6-3 225 pound safety roaming around waiting to smack someone -- and Ndukwe will do just that. Ndukwe probably had three of the top five hits during the 2004 fall camp. He was a little tentative in coverage, and he wasn't real comfortable playing in coverage last year, but he looked better during the spring game and I am certain that the additional reps he'll see this fall will help him considerably. I really like this kid and I think he's a dynamite player. I'm anxious to see what he looks like in a week. I expect him to be the starting field (strong) safety
Geoff Price: This Texan initially committed to the University of Texas, but when the Irish offered, it was too difficult to turn down. Geoff came to South Bend with a reputation of having a huge leg. He has shown it at times in practice, but thus far he has been inconsistent. He'll boom three punts for 50 yards and then kick one 30 yards. Although D.J. Fitzpatrick has been an outstanding punter for the Irish, ideally you would like Geoff to earn the punting duties this year and allow Fitzpatrick concentrate on the kicking duties. Notre Dame isn't recruiting a punter yet, so that tells me that coach Weis is comfortable with Price's ability and I think he feels that special teams coaches Brian Polian and Bernie Parmalee can get him on track. The weather at the spring game was brutal, so it's difficult to take anything from that game. Geoff will get the chance to show the coaches he can be consistent this fall. If he doesn't you will see the names of a couple punters pop up on the recruiting target list.
When you look over the entire class you see an extremely talented group of players. The class is littered with nine U.S. Army All-Americans, and five USA Today All-Americans. Is Notre Dame really lacking the talent to compete with the best teams in the country? These players are just starting to emerge as playmakers and leaders -- they are now the experienced old men on the squad. This class is living up to their press clippings and I believe that they will exceed expectations. If Weis is going to get Notre Dame back to the top, this is the class that will take him there. Looking at the level of talent in this class, I believe Weis when he says that he can win immediately.