Communication Key for Secondary

Head coach Charlie Weis did not waste any time last week at the Spring Practice Media Day in addressing his areas of concern. Among others, on his list was better communication in the secondary and for good reason. Notre Dame ranked 103rd in the nation in pass defense last season and big plays were the Achilles Heal of this group. Defensive backs coach Bill Lewis said it would be a huge point of emphasis for the secondary during spring ball.

"Communication comes in everything that we do," Lewis said. "Anytime we do drills with two or more people in the secondary, there's always communication involved. That's been an emphasis. Our guys have a much better understanding of our system. I think that should automatically improve our communication but it's something they have to consciously work at everyday. It's the communication between players. It's the communication between the secondary and linebackers. That just comes from repetition, repetition, repetition. They get a chance to do that everyday."

Notre Dame returns all their starters in the secondary. Ambrose Wooden and Mike Richardson are the cornerbacks while Tom Zbikowski and Chinedum Ndukwe are firm at the safety spots. Leo Ferrine should see action at the nickel back spot while incoming freshmen Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil join the team in June. Last March in Weis's first year, the players and coaches were just learning about each for the first time. Now, the experience that the front line guys have amassed should result in a smoother spring session.

"Hopefully there is a carryover and I've seen that in two days of practice," Lewis said about his secondary. "Our guys are much more confident in knowing what they have to do. But we have to assume that they don't know anything. It's a combination of going back to square one and knowing the coverages and assignments and then, because of their knowledge, moving through that faster. With the experienced guys, you can see that already in two days of practice that there is a feel and something they can lean back on."

"We've had a year experience with them," Zbikowski said about the coaching staff. "It's not like last spring where everything was being thrown at us because it was a necessity or there were time constraints."

At Media Day last week, defensive coordinator Rick Minter might have raised some eyebrows when he said it's a goal for the defense to be in the top-20 in some categories. In 2005, the unit was ranked 75th in total defense and Minter's hope is a benchmark for this year's team to aim for. Lewis just wants to maximize the practice time in spring and concentrate on fixing problems in the defensive backfield.

"We're concerned about teaching and learning," Lewis said. "As we get closer to the season, we'll define goals as a defensive unit. Anything that we do with the secondary will be defined. The biggest thing we have to do, the biggest stat on defense, is eliminate the big play. By doing that, all of your numbers will start to appear better."

A change occurred in the off-season. Brian Polian, who heads the special teams, worked with Lewis last year in the secondary but was moved by Weis to help Minter with the linebackers. Polian played linebacker in college and his experience will be needed at a position where two starting spots are up for grabs.

No worries, though, for Lewis. Jeff Burrow, the defensive graduate assistant, is lending his help. Burrow played at Cincinnati when Minter was the head coach from 1995-99 and was a two-year starter. He spent two years at Minnesota under Glen Mason before arriving at Notre Dame last season. Lewis thinks that Burrow's experience is vital not only for the players but for himself as well.

"First of all, Brian did a heck of a job with me last year," Lewis said. "Coach Weis felt for the dynamics of the staff to make that move. Jeff played in the secondary and can relate to what our guys are experiencing because not too many years ago, he played in the secondary. He brings experience as a player and as a coach of what we want to do. We'll be able to benefit from Jeff and starting soon, we'll be able to focus on Jeff taking the safeties and me taking the corners. Hopefully we can get more emphasis and reps on things we need to do."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories