"I don't know how much we've improved," Lewis said. "We'll find that out in a couple of weeks. But how much we needed to improve was dramatically. Our whole secondary unit, based on performance, needed to improve dramatically. That's what we've been working on in spring practice and through to this point. We'll start to find out September 2nd.
"We need to improve on our overall fundamentals and techniques and execution of our defensive system. I don't think it was one thing that attributed to our performance being less than what we expected. It was a matter of raising the level of the group and not just one person."
Lewis has the tools in place for what he's hoping is a better performance from his group. All four starters return. Even better, their backups from 2005 are here as well, giving Notre Dame a solid, experienced two-deep rotation. Safety and defensive captain Tommy Zbikowski said the secondary is flowing better than last year and didn't know if it was because of players being an extra step faster or an extra season in the system. Lewis said both components are important, one more than other.
"Speed is important in the secondary because we're playing against speed," Lewis said. "That's where the speed is at on offense at wide receiver and running back. Speed can never be underestimated. But there is nothing like experience and gaining experience while you take your system and play it. Everybody who played in our secondary last year, with the exception of a few plays where we got the senior walk-ons in there, is back. There should be a better flow."
"It's always easier the second time around but you still have to pay attention and focus in on the details you missed the first time," starting cornerback Mike Richardson said. "It helps when you get a better grasp of what every position is doing. If you have a certain coverage down cold, you might take a look at what another position is doing to better understand the defense."
An added bonus is that along with the two-deep returning, five freshmen enter the picture to push the veterans for their jobs. The two best bets for playing time might be cornerbacks Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil. With more talented players entering the mix for playing time, it makes the guys above them on the depth chart push even harder.
"All of our players have sensed competition," Lewis said. "That's good. Anyone who has ever competed knows that when you have a job and you can feel those guys at your position have talent, it brings out the best. Competition brings out the best in competitors. Anytime you do a good job in your recruiting, you'll have more players out there at the positions. The competitors will step forward. They like that. They thrive on that."
"You think about it in the back of your head but it's not anything that's a big concern," Richardson said about a young guy taking his spot. "We're always going to push ourselves to be the best and work hard. It's up to the veterans to get things done."
Sometimes in practice, these young guys might get a chance to run with the first-team defense. Walls has been spotted a few times on this unit. It's not so much as Walls is going to be the starter as it is that the coaches want to see what they can do when put into this position.
"If you have guys that you want to get a look at to be able to compare, you have to mix and match," Lewis said. "We stand out there and script the plays. You have so many plays and repetitions in a period that when you go on the field, you write out who you want to see in that drill and how many plays do you want them in that drill. You write it on your script. If Zibby is going to take four snaps and then David Bruton or Ray Herring is going to come in, you write it on your script. You want to come out of the drill and not say, ‘Gosh, I wish I had got so and so in.'"
There are also two big-time receivers for the freshmen to go head-to-head every day in practice. All-American Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight will pose problems for any secondary in the country. Against wide-eyed freshmen, at times it could be a downright mismatch. Both have the hands and athletic ability to make cornerbacks look foolish. But it's the competition and how the freshmen compete that the coaches are observing.
"I think it humbles them at first because when you go against those two, you're going against two really good football players," Lewis said. "I wish there was an opportunity where everyone could get more reps against those guys. But you find out how much those young guys want to compete right away. They know to stay up with those guys and cover them, they're really going to have to raise their level."