After two seasons of mostly special teams duty, Sergio Brown is ready to make his mark on the Irish defense. The Maywood, Ill. native played in 11 games his freshman year, totaling just four tackles. Last year, Brown played in nine games and racked up seven tackles. But to him, the personal stats don't matter. The only numbers that he cares about are 3-9 — Notre Dame's record last year.
"It's really hard to say [how I played] because we didn't do all that well as a team," Brown said. "So we all did bad."
In order to improve the team's play, though, Brown had to start with his own performance. Over the winter, he said he focused primarily on improving his on-field understanding.
"I needed to work on my awareness the most," he said. "[Learning] different situations, what am I gonna get from the offense and things like that."
In order to develop his grasp on the intellectual part of the game, the former high school long jumper has been meeting individually with coaches this winter to go over film.
"I almost live in the Gug," Brown said, referring to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame's practice facility.
During those long film sessions, Brown was motivated by the desire to avoid a repeat of last season's disappointment.
"Going home and everybody's talking about how we did really motivated me to play better," he said. "[I want] to just help the team out as much as I can."
So far, the Proviso East High School graduate thinks the offseason work has paid dividends in spring ball, but that there's always more to learn.
"I feel like I've made a lot of progress," Brown said. "There's still a lot to be made, but I think I'm taking the right foot forward."
Much has been made of this spring's practices being more aggressive and spirited, which, to Brown, is only a good thing.
"It's been real competitive out there," he said. "So I've been out there fighting and just having fun."
Currently, Brown is listed as the second strong safety on the Notre Dame depth chart, behind rising senior Kyle McCarthy. Even though the two are fighting for the same position, there is anything but animosity between them.
"We're real cool," Brown said. "We stay in the same dorm and kid around, joke around, go out to eat."
In addition to hanging out in Knott Hall together, McCarthy and Brown are constantly trying to improve one another's game on the field.
"We always try to help each other on the field," Brown said. "We have to help each other just to make the team better. It's not a fight against each other. We're all fighting as a unit against everyone else."
While coaches have pointed to Brown as a player who has stepped into a sort of leadership role in the locker room, he said that the responsibility and accountability must be shared among all the defensive backs.
"We all just need to motivate each other and just have a short memory if we have any bad plays," Brown said. "Just keep it competitive out there so we can push each other and play well."
That short-term memory is something the Irish defense had a problem with last season. Brown said that, once they were burned early, defenders would start to play tentatively and not actively pursue the ball as much, but that has definitely changed this spring.
"[Last season,] everybody was scared of messing up and just needed to go out there and play, have fun," he said. "[This spring,] it's more of [guys] trying to make a play, rather than being scared of messing up."
Finding aggressiveness shouldn't be a problem with the arrival of new assistant head coach Jon Tenuta from Georgia Tech. Tenuta is renowned throughout college football for his blitz-happy system.
"I really enjoy it," Brown said of Tenuta's scheme "We're gonna have to keep the offense on their toes. It's gonna make the ball come out fast."
With the increased blitzing, however, Irish defensive backs such will be more responsible for covering their man while the linebackers pursue the quarterback. Brown, though, doesn't foresee a problem.
"We've just got to have our awareness up," he said. "Just look forward to the routes we might get in different situations and know that the ball's coming out fast, so we've got to be ready to play."
Being ready to play was one thing Brown's predecessor at strong safety, Tom Zbikowski, was always known for. Brown said he learned a great deal playing under Zbikowski for two seasons.
"He had a real moxie about him," Brown said. "He stayed calm in a lot of situations. He just let things happen and attacked. So I just try to pick up some of the little things that he did."
Brown said the two still talk, but that Zbikowski isn't much for phone conversations.
"He probably won't pick up his phone, but he'll text you everyday," Brown said.
Even though he's all about having fun on defense, Brown knows that there's a certain edge defenders need to have, and he expects the Irish defense to show it in '08.
"We all need to bring a swagger to the team — have a mean defense," he said. "We just need to come out and fight."
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