Zibby Sees Improvement

Speed is always a needed asset in the secondary. Last season for the Notre Dame football team, a mix of a lack of speed combined with being out of position allowed opposing offenses to consistently beat the defense deep for big plays.

Now, it's year two in Rick Minter's defense. A combination of growing familiarity with the system and a few more speed guys on the unit might help improve a group that was ranked 103rd against the pass in 2005.

"There's a big difference in speed from last year," safety Tommy Zbikowski said. "I don't know if it's physically faster from strength and conditioning in the summer or just knowing things better and reading the quarterback and reacting. You definitely see a speed difference in the secondary and at linebacker.

"This year, we spent two days a week doing agility and speed drills. I think that was a benefit of the strength program. We also have higher confidence and knowing the system and being able to read the quarterback and the way to break on balls."

One of those players who speed really isn't a problem for is cornerback Ambrose Wooden. The senior saved a few touchdowns last season with hustling, down the field tackles. It was more of gaining experience. Wooden came to Notre Dame as a wide receiver but switched during his sophomore year. Last season was really his first taste. Despite showing great athleticism, he was sometimes technically unsound. Zbikowski said he's seeing great signs of improvement from Wooden.

"He's been up against some of the top receivers in the game," Zbikowski said. "When you get to go against Jeff (Samardzija) and Rhema (McKnight) everyday, it makes you better. I think his footwork has got a lot better. He's breaking up passes whereas last year they were being caught."

The team has been in full pads since Saturday. The first week was primarily in shells and shorts. Now, the defense can assert their presence in a physical nature.

"You definitely have to get a feel for it," Zbikowski said of contact. "I can remember my first year, once you start hitting, you start forgetting. Once you make contact, the only thing you're concentrating on is making tackles. We definitely have to concentrate on our tackling technique but also focus on what the calls and checks are."

When the 2005 Irish had to go to multiple defensive backs, usually they brought in one extra secondary player. Leo Ferrine assumed that role as the season went on. But with Ferrine, David Bruton, Terrail Lambert and Ray Herring a year more experienced in the system, plus the addition of freshmen Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil, there are a lot of bodies for Minter to use in creative systems. In fall camp, the defense has experimented with six and even seven defensive backs on the field at one time.

"Talking with Brady and those guys on offense, when they see seven defensive backs on the field, it's not intimidating at first," Zbikowski said. "But when he drops back, with that type of speed floating around, it makes his job a lot tougher. It makes the receivers' job a little tougher. Usually the third wide receiver would be going up against a linebacker out of the box but now he sees a cornerback ready to jam him up at the line. That gives them trouble.

"We haven't started to game plan for Georgia Tech yet. But if they come out with four wide receiver sets, I think we'll be ready for them."

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