Aug. 12, 2004
by Bo Rottenborn Notre Dame secondary coach Steven Wilks subscribes to a simple philosophy for winning football games: “I truly believe if you have a great secondary, you are always going to have an opportunity to win,” Wilks says. Despite the departure of a number of veterans, Wilks believes the 2004 Irish defensive backs have the potential to be a team strength. “My expectations for this group are very high,” Wilks says. “We have a great group. We have some guys that have experience – who played and even started last year – but we also have some young guys that have the potential to develop into very good football players.” Gone from last year’s team are cornerbacks Vontez Duff and Jason Beckstrom, as well as safeties Garron Bible and Glenn Earl. That quartet combined to earn 15 monograms and made 73 starts over the past four years. “It is a double-edged sword,” Wilks says of the departure of the veterans. “You hate to lose guys like that; they are hard to replace. But the things they accomplished while they were here have set up a format and a pattern for things to come. I think these guys coming up behind them understand what it takes to be successful.” Back for the Irish are a number of other experienced players, including senior Dwight Ellick, who developed into the replacement for departed All-American Shane Walton at right cornerback in 2003. One of the fastest players on the Irish, Ellick also is a standout for the Notre Dame track and field team, having earned all-BIG EAST honors in both the 60 and 200 meters. “I look for Dwight to be able to step up this year,” Wilks says. “My expectations of him are very high. I want him to be a leader out there. I want him to take his game to a level where I know he can go.” Another senior, Preston Jackson, has been a regular in each of the past three seasons for the Irish, playing a great deal in nickel packages. He started six times in 2003 and figures to be another key contributor this year. “Preston is a guy that has been around the program for a while,” Wilks says. “He hasn’t really ever been the starter, but he has played a lot. He is someone who is very intelligent and very smart. What is so great about Preston is his knowledge of the game puts him in a position to make plays.” At free safety, senior Quentin Burrell stepped into a starting role in 2003, making 58 tackles and leading the team with four interceptions. He also was a frequent contributor for the Irish during his first two campaigns. “Quentin is really the focal point of our secondary,” Wilks says. “He is so experienced, and he really wants to make his senior year the best it can be. I’m looking for him to really have a great year.” Senior Lionel Bolen is the most experienced returnee at strong safety, having been a reserve and special teams player over the past two seasons. Wilks expects him to make greater contributions in 2004. “I hope Lionel will be more of a factor for us this year,” Wilks says. “He worked hard in the weight room and in drills in the offseason, competing a lot with Quentin. I expect that will result in big years from both of them.” Despite the confidence he has in the veterans, Wilks also anticipates a great deal of competition for playing time from the younger defensive backs. “I can tell you this, the seniors are going to be pushed by the younger guys,” Wilks says. “And that is only going to make us better. All competition really does is make you better. Those younger guys got a lot of opportunities to take reps in the spring because of some injuries, and I think that will really help us.” Among the unproven, sophomore safety Tom Zbikowski, in particular, has caught the eye of Wilks. The former USA Today first-team prep All-American did not play at all as a rookie, but was impressive throughout spring practice, culminating with his being named the Defensive MVP of the Blue-Gold Game. “Zibby has truly stepped up, and he had the best spring out of everybody,” Wilks says. “We are looking for some great things out of him. Based on what I saw from him, I will be very surprised if he doesn’t come out and continue to excel. He is a good football player, but he is going to turn into a great football player.” Just Call Him “Big Play” Burrell The trademark of Notre Dame’s secondary in recent years has been an ability to come up with big plays that affect the outcomes of games. Senior free safety Quentin Burrell exhibited a knack for that last year in his first season as a starter, leading the Irish with four interceptions, while also sharing the team lead with a pair of fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown. “I’m looking for him to make great plays this year,” Irish secondary coach Steven Wilks says of the Decatur, Ga., native. “Quentin is expecting to make those plays. That is one of the great things about him; he has spent a lot of time studying film and trying to learn certain things opponents are trying to do. We are talking about the offensive aspect of evaluating and being able to anticipate. He is really concentrating on that and trying to improve his game from that standpoint.”
Quentin Burrell will be one of the playmakers in Notre Dame’s defensive backfield during the 2004 season.
Burrell’s efforts began to pay off late in 2003, as he was in on four turnovers in the final three games, intercepting a pass against BYU, Stanford, and Syracuse, while also picking up a fumble against the Cardinal and taking it 65 yards for his first career score. The ability to make big plays was something Burrell exhibited regularly in his days at Southwest DeKalb High School, where he notched 16 interceptions over his final two years. “In a free safety, which is the quarterback of the defense, you want someone who roams the middle of the field and has great vision and breaks on the ball well, and Quentin does all of that,” Wilks says.