Aug. 30, 2007
Q. You guys have both obviously been around and through a lot of different openers, but is this one any different in that you may be a little more eager to get out and see what you have and how it’s going to stack up against a team like Georgia Tech?
Tom Zbikowski: I think it’s the same as always. You get tired of playing your own teammates. You want to get out on the field and start playing some real competition. And you know, when the fans are all there and the excitement that Saturday brings … it definitely helped out opening up against them last year, getting a little feel for how they play and what they are about. We know they have got a real good running back coming in, and I guess he’s pretty excited to come in and play here. See what happens.
Q. What differences do you see in their offense with their new coordinator? I’m sure you looked at some Northern Illinois tape. What are the differences that you see?
Maurice Crum Jr.: For the most part it’s pretty basic football. It’s all about getting your star guys, your talent, the football. So just different ways to get those guys the ball, whether it be (Tashard) Choice or James Johnson, it’s just getting those guys the ball.
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, you look at some comparisons, they always want to get the ball to (Rashaun) Grant who is a solid running back; and having Choice come back who is definitely one of the premier backs in the country, you’re going to see a lot of the same things of trying to get him the ball and pretty much lining it up. I know they have got pretty good tight ends they like to use, and a lot of times they (used) two tight ends at Northern Illinois. Don’t know if they will use it going off to Georgia Tech, but we definitely got prepared for both types of offenses.
Q. Are you happy not to be going against a quarterback that’s as likely to run as the one did last year? Is that a little less on your plate?
Maurice Crum Jr.: Definitely. That’s always an added dimension to an offense. They had a guy that could run it at any time and instead of throwing it away, he could get extra yards with his feet. So compared to that, it’s definitely easy, but (Taylor Bennett) brings his own style to the game, his arm strength, the way he throws the ball, so it’s give and take.
Q. Coach Weis made the comment the other day that you are not only in the best shape of your career, but there wasn’t another year that was close, at least in the ones that he was around. Are you in that much better shape than you were two years ago?
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I was in pretty good shape two years ago. But I definitely feel the best I’ve felt speed wise, strength wise. And just when we are practicing, we are starting to get into 12 play series and stuff like that and I really didn’t feel like there was much made. We go from special teams returning points, the punt team, and it’s not wearing on me like it really did last year.
Q. Coach Weis has said we’ll see more running backs from the offense this year versus mostly Darius (Walker) last year. When you face a team that uses different running backs, how does that vary from a one man guy preparation and during the game?
Tom Zbikowski: I think you get a chance to see how they use their running backs. I know Georgia Tech has two running backs that they kind of use differently, but both are very comparable running backs. I know they like to put Grant into the slot and throw him some bubbles and some screens and let him do some things and then Choice, you know, can break tackles and run it up the middle.
And then any time you can put those two backs in the backfield at the same time, it gives the defense a little something that they have got to look at. When it comes to during the play, whoever has the ball, you have to tackle them, regardless of whoever it is.
Q. Is preparation time harder? Do you have to prepare differently when they are going to use more?
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, but also you get a chance to see, pick up some tendencies if someone is in an assertive position. Or if they are with certain personnel, you can kind of pick up some tendencies.
Q. Last year when you were facing Choice, other players were saying that he is the toughest person they had to bring down all year. Did you notice that, and what is it he does that makes it so difficult?
Maurice Crum Jr.: It’s his style of running. He’s a north south kind of guy, up and down the field, knows when to drop his shoulder, knows to make the cut. He has good speed. He’s a complete back and I think that’s what makes him tough.
Q. Does he compare to any guys that you’ve seen over the past two years?
Maurice Crum Jr.: He has his own style. That’s what makes him unique as a running back and what makes him a tough opponent to go against — his particular style.
Q. Continue that line of questioning a little bit — is he better on film? What he was doing later in the year, I don’t think any of us walked away from that game saying, “That guy is a 1,400 yard rusher.”
Maurice Crum Jr.: I think as the season went on, he got better and better. And we see that watching tape with each game, with each touch, he just got better and better.
Q. Going into that game last year, Calvin Johnson was their guy last year. Did you guys even know much about Choice a year ago? Did you talk about him very much?
Maurice Crum Jr.: It was tough. We talked about him. We thought he was a pretty good back. But for the most part, it was Calvin Johnson everywhere, so I think (Choice) got overshadowed.
Q. Do you have to go into this year’s game realizing this is the (new) Choice, not the Choice of a year ago?
Tom Zbikowski: Definitely, because you see them later in the year, and they start using him a lot more than when we played him. You know he’s a threat any time he starts with the ball, and that’s something we have to be prepared for and that’s probably their best weapon on offense.
Q. Maurice, the competition next to you with Toryan (Smith) and Joe (Brockington) — are you surprised in any way that it ended up in kind of a dead heat there, and are you comfortable with guys shuffling in and out? And how did that affect what kind of rhythm you get into as a linebacker?
Maurice Crum Jr.: I think I spent a lot of time with Toryan this summer, so getting to know him as a person and how he feels and how he plays, I think that will help me play with him.
And Joe, I’m very comfortable with. Joe is someone I’ve been playing with since I’ve been here. But I think me spending time with Toryan and how long I’ve been with Joe, we’ll gel together as a unit pretty well.
Q. Coach (Weis) said he was kind of surprised how similar they were; he thought they would be more different. Did that surprise you that they are more similar than people may have thought?
Maurice Crum Jr.: Not really, because both of those guys are tough football players. They will run through the wall; they really don’t care. I think they just started playing together, but they started to realize how good they are.
Q. Tom, Darrin (Walls) is a first time starter this week. What has he been like and how have you been able to help him out?
Tom Zbikowski: I think I remember going back to Georgia Tech last year, he got thrown in a couple of times covering Calvin Johnson the first game I remember him playing. So I don’t think he has to worry about starting for the first time. He’s been getting better and better ever since week one of last year. You know, I think he’s added a little bit of muscle; I don’t know how much. He’s gotten to be more of a complete corner more and more since he’s been at camp and been here.
Q. As a guy who was just brought in on potential, is he (Walls) starting to get there? What have you seen?
Tom Zbikowski: I think so. Coach (Corwin) Brown and Coach (Bill) Lewis have helped him out with technique at corner. You can definitely see him getting better and all of the ones we’ve been doing, alternate teams and things like that, you can see him getting better as a player.
Q. Off topic, have you talked to (Jeff) Samardzija lately and how is he doing?
Tom Zbikowski: He’s been doing good. He’s supposed to be coming in if he doesn’t get called up here in a week or two. I guess he’s been doing pretty good. I had lunch with his brother the other day, so they are all doing good.
Q. When was the last time you were as skinny as Walls is now?
Tom Zbikowski: Eighth grade — nah. (Laughter) Probably like my junior year of high school I’d say.
Q. It’s kind of assumed that Taylor Bennett is established because of the bowl game that he had against West Virginia, and that’s a guy with very little experience. When you see him, do you look at him as a guy that you should be able to or can rattle in Notre Dame Stadium?
Tom Zbikowski: Just looking from the bowl game, he seemed very poised for his first start and really, his first playing time. He ran the offense very well. Obviously they put up 35 points, or something like that, against West Virginia. He’s a very capable quarterback. I believe if you can get enough pressure on him, you can rattle any quarterback. Hopefully we’ll get some pressure from the guys up front and make some plays on the back end.
Maurice Crum Jr.: I think definitely watching him in the bowl game proved that he has what it takes to be a good quarterback, because that’s just not the home opener. So just to be thrown in the bowl game and to perform like he performed is something that you kind of look at the guy and say, this guy has got some talent.
Q. For both of you guys — can you talk about a lot that has been made about the surprise the offense might have. Do you think the defense might have an element of surprise, depending how you do the 3 4 and especially they don’t know the tendencies (Coach) Brown might have in this game?
Maurice Crum Jr.: Not so much scheme wise. Might be more surprised about how we play and how our attitude has changed. I think attitude wise, we are completely different defense than what we were last year.
Q. You talk about being in better shape than last year. What was the key to that? How did you get into shape?
Tom Zbikowski: Just staying focused, doing everything that the strength staff here asked us to do and then extra. But I think a lot of it just has to do with diet and being more focused than ever. There’s really not too much to it.
Q. I think I read somewhere that you said you felt like you weren’t yourself last year. Why weren’t you yourself last year? I know about the injury, but was there anything else that caused that?
Tom Zbikowski: I don’t think I was as hungry as I was the year before, or as hungry as I am right now. This year, even through training camp and even through now, I think as a team, as a defense, we’ve been having some fun and playing like we just want to play football and don’t care about anything else.
We want to have fun, we want to go make plays and not putting any added pressure on ourselves. Not too many people are expecting anything out of us except for ourselves, and we know what we’re capable of and we want to show it to everyone.
Q. Coach Weis mentioned the other day that you could have gone to the NFL, but also you had dropped a little bit in the rankings. Did you perceive that at all, and is that part of the thing that’s driving you this year at all — that you have something to prove?
Tom Zbikowski: Not really. I want to play football and I want to look at the tape and not really care about what numbers or what rankings I’m at because that means nothing. When you’re watching film with guys on your team and then defense, you want to look at yourself and know that’s you, and be able to look at each other and say we played as hard as we could and not really care about what people are saying.
Q. Is there one area in particular you’re looking to improve upon from last year? One area that you thought you didn’t do as well as you should have or could have?
Tom Zbikowski: Just everything. You’re always looking to get better in every aspect of yourself as a football player. If you don’t think you can improve everywhere, you don’t want to be the best.
Q. Was part of your training this summer yoga? How did that help you?
Tom Zbikowski: I went a couple of times. I just needed some help flexibility wise, and I know it helps out when you’re in the middle of training just for recovery and getting a little more limber and stuff. I did it once a week or so, nothing every day.
Q. Looking at the secondary as a whole, how much of the competition did that help you guys all get better, and especially the younger guys working against those veterans to get Darrin Walls to this point?
Tom Zbikowski: I think the competition has been a big part just all through camp; just making each other better. When we got that type of talent, just when you’re going through individual drills alone, if we’re going against each other, or with each other, whatever it may be, you’re looking around, you know you’re not going to be working as hard as you can. It’s competition at safety, competition at corner, competition at nickel, and you have that type of depth that there’s a lot of things the defensive back coach or defensive coordinator can do with him.
Q. And how much can that help on Saturday, having so many different guys you can rotate in? I know David Bruton told me yesterday that as a safety, you benefit when you look at the corners and have confidence in every one of them who will probably going to step on the field.
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, any time something might happen, if somebody unfortunately goes down, there’s somebody right behind them that’s just as good that can play. I think that’s how you have a good team is everyone on the program can play.
Q. Just following up on something you said before — did you feel like there was too much pressure maybe internally last year?
Tom Zbikowski: As an individual, I definitely feel there’s a lot of pressure I put on myself, but I do that all the time. There’s obviously pressure going in preseason ranked No. 2. But we really don’t pay too much attention to it or put too much pressure on ourselves.
Q. And just following something up, at what point did you realize (Darrin Walls) would be able to get to this level? Any specific moment that stands out?
Tom Zbikowski: I just remember seeing him as a freshman, seeing him run and cover people thinking he would be a good ballplayer. It’s not like he came in and you looked at him like this kid needs a lot of work. He played last year in the first game, so you know there had to be some talent and there had to be some skills that he has.
Q. The new defense — how is that going to translate on the field?
Maurice Crum Jr.: It just allows us to go out and play more loose and not be so uptight and worried about this or worrying about that. Our attitude just allows us to have fun. It allows us to hit and run and attack the football.
Q. You guys last year gave up a lot of big plays. How committed are you this year to try to stay away from those big plays? Has that been a major focus?
Tom Zbikowski: Since Coach Brown came in, that’s the biggest thing — he calls them explosives, either runs or passes. All through training camp, I really can’t remember too many explosives or big plays that were going on. But, you know, we’ll see Saturday and we’ll see throughout the year if that’s going to hold up. I think it will. I think that’s what Coach Brown has instilled in us — making plays and not giving up the big ones.
Q. You touched on the attitude. What kind of defense is this? What attitude are you bringing that we don’t see?
Maurice Crum Jr.: Just tune in Saturday and you’ll figure it out. But for the most part, you’re going to see a group of guys looking after one another. We’re all going to fly to the ball and all going to try to make stuff happen. We all know there are guys on the sideline waiting to get in and make plays. We know we have a young team, so us older guys try to show the younger guys how it’s supposed to be done and bring tradition to the defense.
Q. When the offense goes against the defense, there are a lot of question marks for us (the media) anyway. When you guys go, a lot of young guys are on that side, but how is that working out?
Maurice Crum Jr.: I think our defensive attitude is contagious to the team. You see the offensive guys, them being young, them trying to step up and be physical and try to match us and be better than us. So I think our attitude won’t just be good for our side of the ball.
Q. I know it’s Thursday afternoon and it’s just starting to build, but as it builds towards game time, opening day and as you get ready for the game and everything, do you start to get pumped up this early in the week to start thinking about the pep rally and the fans coming out?
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, you never think this day is going to come when you first start training camp. Just practicing Monday, it almost felt like it was Thursday, and you start getting excited. Yesterday, with the defense, we were inside and we were playing some music while we were making calls, just to get used to Mo calling plays in the huddle. It’s a little different when you’ve got to be yelling and screaming and make sure everyone hears it.
But you start feeling that. You start feeling that excitement. Coaches start bringing up about how the stadium is going to be — `Start getting ready to play; be ready to take care of all of the ticket requests from everyone calling you up trying to get to the game.’ You know it’s game time once that happens.
Q. Would you say this is the most motivated you’ve been since you’ve been at Notre Dame, and if so, why?
Tom Zbikowski: Yeah, I definitely think it is, and I think it has a lot to do with what happened last year. But I’m not really one that wants to dwell on the past.
I think it actually also has to do a lot with the guys on the team. There are a lot of younger guys you can look in their eyes and know they are ready to play and really just want to get on the field and have fun and prove a lot of people wrong.
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