Part VII - Defensive Secondary
Watch the position of Zbikowski on the Now famous 4th and 9 play below (approx. :25 into video):
Notice that he is far too shallow when Leinart delivers the pass, and that if he hadn't been playing so shallow, the resulting run would have been simply a 1st down, rather than a 60+ yard romp. If Notre Dame holds USC on that drive, we probably would have played for the National Championship last year.
Expect to see a lot of plays like that this year.
The weaknesses in our linebacking corps as outlined above are going to force Zbikowski and Ndukwe to play closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving our corners out to dry. An improved pass rush and better play from our corners will help alleviate this problem, but ultimately our safeties can only do so much.
This entire unit has been lambasted all season as being too slow, not able to keep up with speedsters like Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn, Jr. However, most of the pundits have confused lack of speed with playing out of position.
Tom Zbikowski, Senior, Strong Safety (3 year starter)
For the three of you that haven't heard, Tommy Z started his professional boxing career this past summer, debuting in a :49 knockout of Tommy Bell, an Ohio State ringer. When he got to training camp this year, he looked a little more like a boxer than a football player, but it didn't take much time for him to get his football legs back under him.
Obviously, the first thing you talk about with Tommy is his toughness. Any guy that enjoys getting into a ring and trading head blows with other grown men has got to be tough.
What most people don't realize about Tommy is his amazing speed. He runs a sub-4.4 forty, and several times last year chased down "speedsters" from behind, such as Reggie Bush in the USC game, and Ted Ginn in the Ohio State game.
What Tommy needs to work on is playing more disciplined and not biting on the play action fake as much this year. This is where Tommy's toughness gets him in trouble. He wants to hit someone on every single play, and so he sneaks up closer to the line of scrimmage than he should. If he can sit back in coverage more this year and trust his linebackers and D-line to stop the running game, he could be one of the best safeties to come out of college in the past decade. If he doesn't, he'll probably slip into the 2nd or even 3rd round of next year's draft.
In many ways, Tommy's particular skills are showcased best as a punt returner. His toughness means that he's not afraid to run over people. His speed gives his the burst necessary to get separation, and he has that second gear that allows him to pull away in the open field. Being stiff-armed by Zibby is like being punched in the face (surprise, surprise).
He was named first-team All-American as a punt returner, and second-team All American as a defensive back. If he can improve his defensive play, as well as break a bunch of punt returns, don't be surprised if he gets a little pub as a dark horse Heisman candidate - but he won't win it, as he is only the fourth or even fifth besst Heisman candidate on his team.
Chinedum Ndukwe, Senior, Free Safety (2 year starter)
Ndukwe is a converted receiver, and last year he played a little heavy at the safety position, in part because for most of the offseason the coaches weren't sure if he should be playing at safety or outside linebacker. When people were talking about this defensive backfield being too slow, they were probably picturing Ndukwe lumbering around the field last year.
Many people say you can't teach speed. I don't agree with that, but Ndukwe doesn't need to be taught speed. He just needed to lose some weight. This year, he is 20 lbs. lighter, and has the quickness and speed to go with it. Remember, he is a converted reeiver. He has the speed.
Now, Ndukwe needs to show improvement in reading defenses and not biting on the play action fake.
Ambrose Wooden, Senior (2-year starter)
Wooden came out of nowhere to earn his starting position last year, and quickly developed into the most talented corner on the team. Right now, I would rate his as the #1 corner on our defense, due to his physical ability.
Mike Richardson, Senior (RS) (3-year starter)
Richardson doesn't have the panache of Wooden, but he is a very good, very reliable #2 corner, that would be the #1 guy on pretty much any team in America. Richardson's biggest asset is that he rarely makes mistakes. He may get beaten physically by some of the top receivers in the nation, but it is not because of porr execution.
The cornerbacks are not slow. The safeties are not slow. The next person that comes to me and says as much just might get my foot so faar up their ass that they'll be chewing on shoe leather.
The perceived "slowness" of this defensive secondary starts, actually, in the linebacking corps and defensive line. If the linebackers can't stop the run, the safeties have to move up in run support. If the defensive line doesn't get pressure on the quarterback, the corners are forced to try to play one-on-one with the receivers until they get open.
Corners cannot shut down an opposing offense on its own.
That said, the defensive line should get better pressure this year. the linebackers won't improve much, so when the defensive line fails to get pressure, the corners will struggle. If this linebacking corps can use its speed and athleticism to flow to the ball and shut down the run, our safeties will be able to use their speed to disrupt the passing game.
On the whole, the defense is only as good as its weakest link (the linebackers). If the defensive line gets quarterback pressure and the defensive secondary stops the pass, it will be for naught if the other team can run for 6-8 yards per play against these linebackers.
All that's left now is to see how it plays out on the field.