Zbikowski was excited and anxious. All the Zbikowski haters, the ones saying the safety was overrated, need to be silenced. But more importantly, all the negative comments about Notre Dame heading into the 2007 season need to be addressed. There was running, lifting and seven-on-seven in the off-season, but Monday morning marked the beginning of fall camp and the time to get to work.
Last season didn't go the way Zbikowski and his Irish teammates thought it would at this time a year ago. The senior safety was set to lead Notre Dame's defense in helping win the National Championship. On the way, Zbikowski, fresh off his first professional boxing win at Madison Square Garden, was going to pick up a national award or two, and be projected as a first round pick in the 2007 NFL draft.
Well everyone knows how Notre Dame's season ended. A 10-3 record, a second straight trip to a Bowl Championship Series game, and another disappointing loss to end the year. Nobody outside of the Irish football program knew the pain and agony Zbikowski was playing through the second half of the season.
"Purdue was the game.," Zbikowski said of when he injured his shoulder. "A couple games before I felt something, but it really wasn't as bad. But once the Purdue game, I pretty much played the second half with only one arm, I didn't have much movement in it."
At Notre Dame's media day on Monday, Zbikowski didn't even mention a groin injury that also slowed him down. Just like last year, there were no excuses. And through it all, Zbikowski had a nice season. He ranked third on the team with 79 tackles, he was named a third team All-American by the Associated Press, and was a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award (presented to the nation's best defensive back) despite missing a game. Zbikowski would've played the Stanford game, but the coaching staff wouldn't let him play for precautionary reasons.
What was missing was the electricity from the 2005 season, and fans started to turn on Zbikowski. In 2005, the Arlington Heights, Ill. product intercepted five passes and returned two of them for touchdowns. He returned another two punts for touchdowns. Aided by his boxing, Zbikowski became one of the most well-known names in the country, helping the Irish back into the National Spotlight in head coach Charlie Weis's first season. Last year, there were no interceptions, one fumble returned for a touchdown, and one punt for a score, but his return average was down from 14 yards per return to nine.
Zbikowski heard all the harsh comments made about him. He could've made his injuries public information, but that's not his style. That didn't stop him from getting irritated. Now is the time to address it with his play as a fifth-year senior.
"Bottle it up and let it out this year," Zbikowski stated.
Zbikowski said he is hungrier going into this season than he was going into last season. There was no boxing this summer. He stated that he pretty much trained from the end of the spring until now for his final collegiate season. That once hurt shoulder, now has a chip on it.
Weis had to field a question about if the media was too harsh on Zbikowski last season.
"Two things," Weis stated. "I think at the start of the year, he might have been a tad overweight, but I don't think that his weight was the issue. I think him getting speared on a punt return was the issue because he was never the same the rest of the year. And I think that sometimes you don't realize because the kid is so tough, you don't realize a guy is playing with pain and borderline playing with injury.
"And I think that the reason why he made the decision to come back - it wasn't because he loves going to school, by the way. He already graduated, and he's a very proud person to have done that. But I think that he's coming back here because he knows that his worth should be higher than where it ended up last year based off of what ended up happening. The good thing about a guy like that is, now he does have a chip on his shoulder, okay, and his weight is down, and he's ready to go. Obviously the team greatly benefits by having a guy like that who's a good football player that's coming in with a chip on his shoulder with something to prove."
The 6-foot Zbikowski said he weighs in at 205 pounds, down 10 pounds from what he weighed at this point last season. While he has bottled up all the comments made about him last year, he almost bursts when asked by a reporter on media day what he thinks when he hears that Notre Dame is rebuilding this year. Weis isn't using that word. Zbikowski isn't using that word. As far as they're concerned, everybody on the team is a Notre Dame football player here to win every game.
"I just keep quiet because it's not going to be anything good that I'm going to say back to the person," Zbikowski said. "I really can't say much."
Asked again a few minutes later.
"It ticks him off," he stated. "I can't really go into much more or it's going to make me more upset."
Those two things are driving the second-year captain. Another opportunity for a National Championship, and the opportunity to silence his doubters.
"Not the season I really wanted to have last year," Zbikowski said. "A lot of people, as usual, saying that we're going to win one game the first eight games. That's old news. That's been the last three years in the row.
Those thoughts kept Zbikowski tossing and turning in bed the day before the first practice.
"I can't wait to get on the field today," Zbikowski stated. "I know we're not in pads. I want to use training camp as something to really get yourself ready for the season and get the best you can possibly get, not just something you're going to try and get through and make it through each practice. I know people say that all the time, but actually doing it."
According to defensive backs coach Bill Lewis, Zbikowski has never had a problem doing that.
"He's a blue-collared guy and he knows how to go out on the field and work," Lewis said. "So if I have a young guy and I've told our young players, this guy comes to every practice ready to practice. He gives you that kind of work. Tommy plays the game with a toughness, with an aggressiveness that you like to see from any of your defensive players, particularly the secondary. Being that kind of player, and having that kind of player on our defense is a plus. I think it's also a plus for our young players to be able to look and say hey that's what we're all aspiring to be. That's what a defensive back looks like when he practices, and that's what a defensive back looks like when he plays the game."
A game can't get here soon enough for Zbikowski. And there is no doubt he won't sleep well the night before Georgia Tech comes to Notre Dame Stadium for the Sept. 1 season opener.
"I'm at 100 percent now," Zbikowski said. "I feel the best I've felt since I've been in college with running and lifting and where my strength's at. We'll see when I get on the field."