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Secpndary Development

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Secondary Development

Written By: Frank Vitovitch | Posted:April 9, 2006 02:53 AM

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(UHND.com) – Bill Lewis’s first year as Notre Dame’s defensive back coach saw the Irish give up big plays with relative frequency. It also saw Lewis turn a group of unproven and broken down defensive backs into legit, capable defenders. Year two promises to show further improvement under Lewis’ guidance.


Heading into 2005, Mike Richardson was the punch line of numerous chat room and message board puns, Ambrose Wooden was a talented athlete who had yet to crack the lineup as a corner, and Chinedum N’Dukwe was a converted linebacker. By season’s end, Wooden had made numerous big plays for the Irish defense, the difference in Richardson’s play was night and day compared for 2004, and N’Dukwe started to develop into a safety.


Despite the improvement, the Irish defense was still susceptible to big plays, most notably in the Fiesta Bowl disaster against Ohio State. However, that one performance shouldn’t over shadow the improvement that Lewis made with his inexperienced and much maligned secondary.


For two seasons Ambrose Wodden was a gifted athlete who could not find a home. In 2005, Wooden stepped into a starting role and came up with some big plays. Against Michigan, his hustle prevented a Wolverine touchdown when he pushed Jason Avant out of bounds at the Notre Dame one during Michigan’s comeback attempt. Chad Henne would go on to fumble the ball away on a quarterback sneak with N’Dukwe recovering.


Wooden’s hustle would save another touchdown three week’s later against Purdue when he again made a touchdown saving tackle at the one with a fumble recovered by the Irish following. Wooden’s impact was not just limited to hustle plays however. He developed a knack for making plays in the redzone with an interception in the endzone against Washington and then a deflection of a Matt Leinart pass by Wooden that was picked off by N’Dukwe in the end zone in the Irish’s heart breaking loss to USC.


Despite the big plays Wooden made throughout the year and the huge strides he made, he will be remembered for the one play he didn’t make in 2005. Facing a 4th and 9, with USC’s winning streak on the line, Matt Leinart audibled to a streak to Dwayne Jarrett with Wooden covering. Wooden came within literally an inch of knocking the pass away, but his miss lead to a completion and a huge play for USC. The rest is history.


Still, the improvement and ability Wooden showed in 2005 is very promising for a secondary that will need to improve as much this off-season as it did last off-season. I truly believe Ambrose Wooden possess All American talent at corner and that we will see him reach that potential this year.


Wooden’s cornerback running mate, Mike Richardson, has been slowed by injuries this Spring which has allowed junior Terrail Lambert to step up and play with the first team. Richardson will resume his role as the other starting corner when he is healthy, but as Lambert develops he will push for a starting spot more and more.


Despite what some fans make believe, Richardson raised his level of play a few notches last year. Richardson looked lost as a first time starter in 2004 in Kent Baer’s system, but started to really settle in last year. His play was far from perfect, but it was far from what we saw in 2004 as well. He picked off three passes last year including a drive ending pick of Matt Leinart in the 3rd quarter of the USC game.


The more time Richardson misses however, the more likely it is he could lose his starting role to Lambert who has a ton of talent but little game experience. Lambert, like Wooden possess some excellent speed, and could become a top notch corner.


Leo Ferrine played a lot of nickel corner last year and returned an interception for a touchdown against Syracuse and figures to be in the mix again in 2006. With Ferrine healthy this Spring, it looks like Lambert has at the least passed Ferrine as evidenced by Lambert running with the first team and Ferrine with the second.


The play of the safeties in 2005 was not as encouraging as the improvement that the corners showed, but both Zbikowksi and N’Dukwe did show some improvement. Both were absolute monsters against the run. The problem however was that they were too concerned with stopping the run that they were frequently burned by the play action – most notably by Ohio State.


Zbikowski is a truly gifted athlete who moonlights as a punt returner and professional boxer. He needs to improve on his cover skills, but he is stout against the run and when he gets the ball in his hands, look out. He has excellent speed. Just ask Reggie Bush and Santonio Holmes. Zbikowski has stated he needs to improve against the play action and in deep coverage this off-season as he enters his third as a full-time starter.


N’Dukwe started the Spring last year at apache before moving to safety more out of necessity than anything else. He played well at times, but really struggled with deep coverage all year. He is huge for a safety and a move back to apache is not entirely out of the question especially with the development of freshmen safeties Ray Herring and David Bruton.


Bruton drew some rave reviews a s true freshman last year in fall camp and has continued that success this Spring. If nothing else, Bruton should see time in passing situations, if not potentially starting.


The secondary will also receive an infusion of talent in the fall when freshmen Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil report to campus along with fellow freshman Sergio Brown, Leonard Gordon, and Jashaad Gaines. Walls and McNeil are talented enough to play as true freshman. McNeil turned heads at the All American Bowl with his lockdown cover skills. Walls meanwhile is said to be even better.


A season of experience, another season under Lewis’s coaching, and an infusion of talent this fall all add up to one thing – an improved secondary for the Irish in 2006.

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