Oct. 6, 2004
By Greg Touney
Imagine lining up one-on-one against one of the top wide receivers in the country, knowing that one mistake – a stumble, a wrong turn, a mistimed jump – can result in a game-changing momentum swing, massive heaps of scrutiny, and, of course, six points for the offense.
Now, that’s pressure.
For anyone who thinks that that pressure might get to Notre Dame’s Dwight Ellick, the senior cornerback has three words:
“I love it.”
As a defensive back, Ellick knows the pressure of competing against the best receivers in the country. For him, it’s just part of the job description.
“That’s what being a defensive back is about – you love that challenge.”
Over the past two years, Ellick and the rest of the Irish defensive backs have faced some of the best wideouts in college football, including Braylon Edwards of Michigan and Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Williams, formerly of Pittsburgh and USC, respectively.
“It’s a challenge, simply that,” Ellick says about facing big-time receivers. “Everyone’s going to be watching. If I play well against them, everyone’s going to take notice.”
While the much of the talk about the Michigan and Michigan State victories have centered on the breakout performances of running back Darius Walker and safety Tom Zbikowski, Ellick has quietly done an outstanding job himself. Michigan was a breakout performance for Ellick as well, as he forced a fumble and recovered it and intercepted a pass – both turnovers leading to key fourth-quarter Irish touchdowns.
Ellick, however, doesn’t mind if he stays out of the media spotlight.
“As far as being overshadowed, I wouldn’t really care if someone else got the glory because when we look at the film the next day, our coaches and our team see who’s out there making the plays and helping the team,” the Tampa, Fla., native says.
“As long as they know, I don’t really care what people on the outside say.”
Due to the graduation of safeties Garron Bible and Glenn Earl and cornerbacks Vontez Duff and Jason Beckstrom, the secondary was a possible question mark for Notre Dame. A three-time monogram winner, Ellick entered the 2004 campaign with the most experience in the Irish secondary, having started six of the final eight games last year.
While Ellick has heard the criticism for lack of experience, he hasn’t viewed it as a problem.
“People talk about our lack of experience all the time. Before the season started, my reply was `You’ll see’.
“I definitely feel we’ve been stepping up to the challenges,” Ellick says, citing solid team performances against Michigan and Michigan State and a good effort against BYU, despite the 20-17 loss.
“If someone talked about our lack of experience now, I’d just say `Watch the games’. We still have a lot to improve on, we’re still getting better, and we keep building on every single game.”
The senior has contributed each year on special teams and has just recently gotten a chance to prove himself as a cornerback. Ellick, however, has always possessed the mental toughness necessary to be a member of the Irish secondary.
“As a cornerback, you’ve got to have so much confidence because you’re all by yourself,” Ellick relates. “A lot of people can’t see if the defensive tackle messes up or if the linebacker misses his gap, but everyone sees when a cornerback misses his assignment.
“You’re all out there by yourself so you’ve got to have the utmost confidence.”
Ellick wasn’t given much of a chance to ease into his position, as he was faced with the prospect of going up against Michigan’s Edwards, an All-America candidate, in the second game of the year. While Edwards had a solid game (12 catches for 129 yards), the Notre Dame Stadium end zone might as well have been in Ann Arbor, as Ellick and the Irish secondary held him without a touchdown.
“Anytime you keep someone from scoring, it’s definitely big because it’s hard to win games on field goals,” Ellick says.
Don’t get the impression that Ellick was completely satisfied with the Michigan performance though.
“In terms of me having a good game, I want to shut the other receiver down – whoever’s lined up across from me.
“We feel that we have the front seven to shut down the run game so if we hold things up on the back end, we feel like we’ll have a good game,” he adds.
New defensive backs coach Steven Wilks has been vital in molding the young Irish secondary into a solid group. Ellick notes Wilks’ insistence on mastering the “small things” as one reason for the improvement.
“He stresses [the small things] all the time – from day one until the day you leave here. He doesn’t care if you’re a freshman, junior, senior, sophomore, or fifth-year senior.
“Small things like being in position, being proper in your technique, good hand placement, good footwork and jumping up and getting the ball at its highest point,” Ellick explains.
After the Irish came out flat against BYU in their opener, many Notre Dame fans were surprised to see the inspired performance against Michigan. According to Ellick, though, the Irish haven’t changed that much.
“The confidence has been there – it’s just starting to show,” he explains. “I think we’re playing out there with that swagger and that chip on our shoulder and we’re going to prove to everyone in the country that we’re not pushovers.”
It’s clear to anyone who speaks to Ellick that the 5-10 speedster exudes confidence – from the sureness of his words to the way he looks you directly in the eye during a conversation. If Ellick’s confidence helps churn out more big plays and big performances this season, Notre Dame fans will quickly learn to erase that question mark next to “Irish secondary” and replace it with an exclamation.