Q&A with Tom Zbikowski

On Sunday, 6-foot, 207-pound Arlington Heights , Ill. , native Tommy Zbikowski spent some time to talk with us about himself and his approach to the upcoming NFL Draft in April. The Notre Dame safety was as outgoing and classy as his reputation had been built up to be and we really appreciated him taking a half an hour out of the one day off he had this week to speak with us.

I guess my first question after having practiced with Coach Weis for three years is how tired of hearing Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen are you?

"Usually when it's on the radio I'll listen to it for a while because it brings back memories of those Thursday practices. Any time we'd ever try to simulate the crowd it was also Springsteen or Bon Jovi non-stop on Thursday. So, all those songs ring in your head, like every word to them and you really don't want to be knowing every word to those songs, but its fun though."

What are you into on a personal level? What kind of music are you into? What do you guys do for fun up there in South Bend ?

"Man, I change all the time from rap, R&B, rock, classic rock – you know, whatever mood I'm in. I'm pretty flexible, I'll listen to anything. It just depends on the mood and who I'm with. Usually a lot of times all we're doing is training or playing football. We love going out and having fun and meeting new people as well obviously when we get time away from the game. We always have a good time."

One of the questions I have coming from a football background is after having guys like Brady Quinn, Derek Landri, Ryan Harris, Chinedum Ndukwe and Jeff Samardzija leave and you and Trevor (Laws) come back and have to be the leaders, what kind of approach did you take to that responsibility. I've been on teams where the leaders were overbearing and screaming at you and when they walk away you're like "what a jerk". What was your approach?

"I'm like the opposite with my personality. Like you, ever since I was younger I didn't like that. Sometimes it's unnecessary to do that and don't respond well to it. Some guys just like you talking man to man and teammate to teammate with them in a certain situation and respond better that way. I think that's the way you have to take it, especially the way our season went. We had a lot of younger guys and had high expectations for ourselves and wanted to show people we could play and then didn't do to well."

Speaking of approaches, talk about your offseason regimen and what you'll be doing up until the combine.

"Pretty much just working out about six days a week and Sunday I use as a personal day to take off. I go at it really hard those six days a week and do some active recovery on Sunday as well."

Do you know what your height, weight and 40-yard dash time is right now?

"I'm at like 207 pounds right now, but I don't know what my height is. I've been running a lot of 10s and 20s right now and am just focused on getting my steps and techniques down before I really start timing. Especially with the Senior Bowl coming up I've been really focused on improving my coverage skills and overall skills at defensive back so I can look the best I can."

Have you gotten any idea of where you expect to be drafted at this point?

"No, I really have no idea. I know after talking to Coach Weis at the end of the season he has heard all over the boards from the 2nd round to undrafted, so I haven't really paid attention to that because I need to stay focused on what I can control and work the hardest as I can so I play up to my potential in the Senior Bowl. At that point we'll take it from there. That's all you can do whether you're going to be a 1st round pick or go undrafted, you have to work hard and take the same approach to getting ready."

Do you know of any teams that have shown you interest at all?

I haven't had any contact with anyone. I've told my dad and my agent to tell me if they hear anything. It really doesn't mean anything to me right now because it all comes down to draft day. I still have the Senior Bowl and the combine to go, so if they want to start telling me after that it's good, but right now it's just going on hearsay really."

I'm assuming you grew up a Bears fan, how would you like to play for them?

"Yeah, I did. I definitely think my family would really enjoy it, but as you come closer to the NFL you start to understand that it's a business and at the drop of a hat you can be in another city pretty quick, so you can't really be a fan of one team."

Speaking of other cities, a lot of Philadelphia fans will be reading this. How would you feel about coming out and playing here for the Eagles?

"I'd love to because the more you hear about Philadelphia and especially with the Eagles you find how passionate their fans are about the game and about winning. I know they love seeing physical defenses because that's what the Eagles have always been about and whenever you have a physical safety that can hit people and make plays I know they would be loving it. That's just the way those fans are in Philly."

Were there any pro safeties that you modeled your game after coming up?

"Not really because I was always an offensive player going through pee-wee and high school football, so when I got switched over I was just trying to learn techniques and play the way I thought you were supposed to play defense."

One of the things coming out of college that you wonder about if there were any particular players that gave you problems. Who are some of the players that were I guess the biggest problem in college?

"I played against a lot of good players, but I know from this last year Dustin Keller was a real good tight end from Purdue and so was Fred Davis from USC. Dominique Byrd was tough too and I had to play against Reggie Bush and Matt Leinhart too. Then you had players like Santonio Holmes, Tedd Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez and Troy Smith that we had to go against. I never felt like I was overmatched or playing against someone I couldn't handle, but obviously when you're playing at that level of competition you're going to win some and they're going to win some."

Did you really have a favorite big hit, favorite tackle or favorite bit hit from your days at Notre Dame?

"My favorite play was against Michigan State my first year playing, I stripped a ball and took it back 70 yards on an ESPN night game and I remember getting on the bus and had like a million text messages and calls on my phone because I had that fumble return touchdown and an interception, so that was kind of like my coming out party a little bit."

What was your greatest moment playing at home?

"I think it would be the game before that after coming off a loss from BYU because it was my first home game as a starter and we played Michigan who was ranked Top 10 in the country with guys like Braylon Edwards and I think that was Chad Henne's second start. They were thought very highly of and we beat them in that game while I had a pretty solid game with a couple tackles and some good hits here and there."

Going into the draft process are you willing to be a role player in the NFL? I know some guys really struggle when they have to adjust from being a starter to going in and fighting for playing time.

"Just the opportunity to be able to play is great. From talking to the players that I played with at Notre Dame I know that you can be fighting for playing time as a backup one week and then the next out on the field starting because of injuries or the way someone is playing and you just have to do whatever you can. I think one thing that has helped out has been the role I've played on special teams, I always played special teams at Notre Dame, so I understand the NFL is the cream of the crop and the opportunity just to be on a team is a lot further then a lot of people could ever dream of making it."

With the pre-draft process, you go from being the star player in college to being prospect #995567 at the combine which is kind of like a meat market. Are you dreading that?

"I'm looking forward to it because I'm doing all this work to impress coaches, general managers and everyone there. I'm putting myself through a lot of pain and a lot of work to show up there and prove to everyone what type of athlete I am. I do laugh about it though, you've got guys degraded walking around in spandex, but that's just the way it is. I've been trying to find the right pair of spandex to bring out my body parts the best I guess (laughing)."

Talk about your playing style, the offense breaks the huddle, what is the first thing you're looking at when they set up at the line of scrimmage?

"I mean usually it comes as soon as the last play is over. You look over at the sideline to see what kind of personnel they have coming in. You've got to look at their personnel, down and distance, where there at on the field, what the score is, what are their tendencies, etc. There are just a ton of things to look at. Once the ball is snapped you have to just react, so you have to know those things before the play to be at your best."

One of the things becoming more prominent in the world of college football is the spread offense. Do you like playing against it or do you like playing against a more tradition NFL style offense?

"I like playing pro-style, I like playing the spread, but I hate playing against the option which I'm glad is over with because I'm pretty sure nobody is running the Wing-T in the NFL anymore. That's the thing about playing at Notre Dame is that you don't get into those habits of playing against one style of defense. You're playing teams from the SEC, Pac Ten, Big Ten, other independents and pretty much from all around the country who all have different offenses, different defenses and their own way that they do things."

Do you feel like there is any system or team that you feel really fits you perfectly?

"Not really. It's hard, especially during the season when you're so focused on what you're doing that you really don't watch other teams and other systems and how they run their safeties. I think that's where the draft process comes in because they'll find you, so you've just got to show your skills on film and be the best you can be in workouts to show you what type of athlete you are so they see you're the type of athlete that can play in any system. I think that's what I've been trying to do the most since the season ended, being the most versatile prospect I can be."

One question for you, in 2005 you talked about a coming out party and that season you had five interceptions for two touchdowns, averaged 14 yards per punt return and scored twice there. In 2006 and 2007 your numbers dipped a bit. Why do you think that happened?

"I know in 2005 no one was ever punting to the sidelines because I didn't have the reputation that they wanted to stop me as a punt returner because I hadn't made that name for myself yet. I think that was a little bit of it, but it's hard to say why it went down. I was still playing as hard as ever and thought I was still performing, but just didn't have as many touchdowns."

Last and most important question…and this is the most important…do any set of cheerleaders compare to USC?

"I don't know, but the girls that were on the UCLA sidelines were pretty good looking. I didn't get to see the cheerleaders, but their girls were pretty good looking, especially when you come to South Bend in November and you've still got tanned legs it's hard to compare to any other cheerleaders (laughing)."

Matt Alkire is a Recruiting Analyst with Scout.com for the Northeast Region and is also co-founder of the website www.scoutsnotebook.com which is a free site dedicated to the NFL Draft. He has been scouting the draft for several years and the site has been ranked highly on a national scale in its accuracy evaluating players.

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