DB's Look to Improve

Notre Dame's secondary this season shouldn't be the oppositions' punching bag like it has been the past few years, and it's not because senior safety Tom Zbikowski proved his skills as a professional boxer. The reason is, that the top returning defensive backs are finally familiar with the intricacies of their position, and have accumulated a lot of game experience.

Four returning starters, cornerbacks Ambrose Wooden and Michael Richardson, and safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Zbikowski made headlines as offensive standouts before arriving in South Bend. Wooden and Ndukwe even played receiver their first year in an Irish uniform. The transition from playing offense to defense wasn't as fast as the Irish faithful was hoping. But it should finally be complete now that the guys have two-three years under their belts.

On top of that, Notre Dame finally has good depth in the defensive backfield.

There are many examples of when an Irish defensive back showed raw talent or a nose for the football a season ago, whether it was Zbikowski returning two interceptions for touchdowns, or Ndukwe's key fourth quarter fumble recovery against Michigan preserving the win. But those were mainly overshadowed by giving up several deep balls (Ohio State and USC), and biting on play-action fakes.

With a season and a spring under a very successful secondary coach in Bill Lewis, anticipate the DBs to look a lot more seasoned. Lewis had his guys working on the basics again during the spring, and that should set them right up for more complex things in the fall.

Wooden is the team's returning tackler, making 74 tackles to go a long with his five pass break ups and two interceptions. Head coach Charlie Weis referred to him as the team's "best surprise" in the 2006 Spring Prospectus. The former high school quarterback had an interception in the spring game on a trick play, picking off Jeff Samardzija.

Richardson, a fifth-year senior and most experienced of the bunch, broke up seven passes last season, intercepted three and also had three sacks. He should be healthy for the fall after missing almost everything this spring.

Terrail Lambert appeared to pass Leo Ferrine on the depth chart during the spring, as he lined up in Richardson's place. Lambert, who actually played in the secondary in high school, is one of the faster guys on the team, but hasn't played much while trying to learn the scheme and the college game. He only played 27 minutes last season. Expect him to play a lot more.

Ferrine was the nickel back last season, making 22 tackles, breaking up two passes and intercepting one. He won't be easily pushed out of his nickel role this year.

Pushing those four are two guys that could very well see the field on defense this season, true freshmen Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls. Both have been impressive since arriving on campus this summer according to sources. Walls is reported to be very fast but a little thin. Even if they don't play, those two will impact the play of the guys in front of them.

Zbikowski will battle Samardzija for the second most bio space in the 2006 Notre Dame media guide behind Heisman candidate Brady Quinn. A third-team All-American (Associated Press) last year, Zbikowski is a guy the opposing quarterback will always have to be conscience of. The preseason All-American made 71 tackles last year and picked off a team-high five passes.

Ndukwe recovered a team-high four fumbles last season and forced another to compliment his 52 tackles. Quinn's favorite high school target, Ndukwe is always gearing up to make a big hit, his strength and weakness. This year, Ndukwe should be more aware of when it's time to blow someone up and when it's time to just make a tackle.

Those two are being pushed by a couple of standouts from the spring in David Bruton and Ray Herring. Weis singled both out during a press conference in the spring time. Bruton, who is behind Ndukwe, began to impress last season as a special teams standout, and continued right through the spring, putting pressure on the starter. Herring made a game-high seven tackles during the spring game. Both didn't play much last season.

Sophomore Kyle McCarthy, one of four first-year players that didn't see the field last season, and incoming freshmen Sergio Brown, Jashaad Gaines and Leonard Gordon aren't expected to impact the defense this season. McCarthy could emulate option quarterbacks on the scout team in practice, a thing he did very well leading up to the Navy game last year.

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