Zielinski gives Duke a lift

If Matt Zielinski's football career doesn't stretch beyond the college ranks, there's another potentially lucrative career opportunity awaiting Duke's powerful senior defensive tackle.

A devoted weightlifter, Zielinski hasn't ruled out professional football. But if that endeavor fails, he plans to put his immense strength to good use elsewhere.

''I have watched the World Strong Man competitions on TV,'' he said. ''I see those guys, and I feel I can compete with a year of training. I could see myself doing that some day.''

For now, the 6-foot-3, 290-pounder from Amhurst, N.Y., is utilizing his bulk and power to manhandle opposing offensive linemen. He has recorded some impressive personal bests in lifting, including a 500-pound bench press, a 715-pound squat and a 405-pound power clean.

The dedicated work in the gym has paid off for Zielinski, who has developed into one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best defensive players. He was a pre-season All-Conference selection.

''I pride myself on it (strength),'' Zielinski said. ''My strength allows to recover from mistakes and come back and make the plays. It's made me the player I am today.''

Following a 2-5 start this season, Duke fans no doubt wish the Blue Devils had more players with Zielinski's determination and drive.

After his team led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing defense last season, Zielinski never envisioned going from first to near worst in the same category in 2003.

The outlook was optimistic heading into the new season. The starting defensive linemen were returning. The players believed in the scheme of defensive coordinator Ted Roof. There appeared to be no reason that a repeat performance wasn't a strong possibility.

It hasn't worked out that way so far. Through seven games, the Blue Devils ranked next to last in the conference in rushing defense, allowing 189 yards. Only North Carolina had surrendered more yards rushing.

And, while Duke ranks fifth in the league in total defense, it also is eighth in scoring defense, allowing 30 points per game.

That kind of performance has Zielinski more than a little upset.

''We are very disappointed,'' he said. ''We should not be letting teams put up this many points on us. We aren't playing at the same level we did last year. We've got to have a different attitude. We are trying to be more aggressive and attack teams.''

Zielinski is befuddled by the poor performance against the run. He expected a similarly stingy unit this season.

''The strides we made from the year before were great,'' he said. ''We are trying to duplicate that, but it hasn't happened yet.

''It's a surprise because we have everybody back. We all got stronger over the winter. We thought we would be strong again.''

So what happened? For starters, the defensive line was beset by injuries.

''At the beginning of the season, we had a lot of injuries,'' Zielinski said. ''We had three or four starters on the line out. The guys that were in there hadn't gotten a lot of reps. That was part of it.''

While the Blue Devils' pass defense has been excellent, ranking first in the ACC, the overall defense has been less effective.

Zielinski has done his part, recording 32 tackles through seven games, including 10 tackles-for-loss and three sacks. But he needs help from his teammates.

''We've been doing it to ourselves,'' Zielinski said of the poor outings. ''We aren't playing a whole game. We will shut teams down for a long time, and then we have a 10-minute stretch where they put up a lot of points.''

With most of the injured players back in the lineup, the Blue Devils hope to make marked improvement the rest of the year in hopes of salvaging a season that has already to led to the firing of head coach Carl Franks.

The next assignment for Duke is an unenviable one -- a visit to Knoxville to battle Tennessee.

''I think we are getting back to the level we need to be at,'' Zielinski said. ''There is no doubt we can get better.''

Even in defeat, a commendable effort by the Blue Devils would work wonders for a Duke team trying to return to respectability.

''It would help our confidence going into the final games of the year,'' Zielinski said. ''It would also be good for the ACC. It's not just for us. We represent the ACC.''

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