Notre Dame Tries to Quench Need for Speed

The pursuit sent one player to Florida, another to Arizona and dozens of others to sites in between.

But no matter the destination, every Notre Dame defender had the same goal in mind.

They had seen the film more than once, cringing at the grand canyons separating them from Ohio State ballcarriers in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl. They saw four touchdowns of 56 yards or longer. They saw the Buckeyes tally a deplorable 617 yards. They saw the celebrations of Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Antonio Pittman, three players who are back this fall.

It made their next step an obvious one. If defenders didn't get faster, nothing else would matter. Without improvement, the defense would put the brakes on Notre Dame's national championship run and satisfy critics who point to the unit as deadweight. Consequently, Notre Dame embarked on its summer of speed.

Tom Zbikowski's quest took him to the so-called enemy, a wide receiver and, even worse, an Ohio State product. Following spring practice Zbikowski spent three weeks with Cris Carter's FAST Program in Boca Raton, Fla.

Though Zbikowski was simultaneously training for his June 10 pro boxing debut in New York, he didn't mix motivations at Carter's camp.

"I wanted to get down there and train for speed," he said.

Carter helped the Irish senior safety understand how receivers think.

"No break is ever good enough," Zbikowski said. "He's [Carter] never satisfied on any given play. You see what their mind-set is, see what they're looking at, whether they're pushing inside or outside."

Chinedum Ndukwe lines up next to Zbikowski in the Irish secondary, but this summer he took a reverse route from his fellow safety. Ndukwe returned to the site of Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl flop, training with Brett Fischer at Fischer Sports in Phoenix.

Fischer's clients include NFL defensive backs Mike McKenzie, Shawn Springs and Darren Sharper. He also works with Ndukwe's older brother, Ike, a reserve guard for the Washington Redskins.

"We just worked on my backpedaling and my cuts, coming out of my breaks," said Ndukwe, who had two interceptions and four fumble recoveries last season.

Ndukwe also did individual speed work at Notre Dame, getting help from Irish QB Brady Quinn. The two players made plenty of connections at Coffman High School in Dublin, Ohio, where Ndukwe played WR and claimed the school record for receiving yards (2,174).

But their summer session had a different flavor to it.

"I'd try to work the middle of the field a little bit, try to break on his shoulders and things like that," Ndukwe said. "I told him not to get in the habit of throwing interceptions."

Speed also took precedence in Notre Dame's team workouts with the strength and conditioning staff. A year earlier, weight training was the focus, as Notre Dame checked off the "bigger" and "stronger" requirements of football's famous cliché.

But this summer the Irish devoted two days of each week to speed and agility drills.

"We did a lot of box jumps into running sprints, did a lot of tire pulls with weights in the tires," Ndukwe said. "It was just working on turnover, just getting your body forward and your knees going as fast as you can. We did wall [drills]. A lot of people do a lot of the same things. It's just how much you do them."

Added senior DE Victor Abiamiri: "After last summer, we had more of an idea what to expect. We had a goal in mind -- improving team speed."

Veteran defenders might have been pushed harder by the fast footsteps behind them. Notre Dame's incoming freshman class features several speedy defenders, namely DBs Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil and LB Morrice Richardson.

And the team's media day earlier this month was abuzz as coach Charlie Weis announced that backup RB Travis Thomas had moved to LB. Ndukwe underplayed the notion that job security motivated Notre Dame's returning starters, but Thomas acknowledged a faster pace in training camp.

"I can definitely sense an increase in defensive speed," said Thomas, the projected starter at weakside LB. "It's something that everyone pushed on this summer." The newcomers might allow Notre Dame to use the nickel and dime packages more often this season.

"I just don't think we had the personnel to be able to accomplish it last year," Zbikowski said.

The back seven weren't the only ones focused on speed. The line is filled with familiar faces (Abiamiri, DT Derek Landri, DT Trevor Laws, DE Chris Frome), and coach Jappy Oliver has been instructed to "turn 'em loose."

"He absolutely has more faith in our defensive line this year with our experience," Frome said of Oliver.

Frome, who missed the final six games of last season with a knee injury, is competing to reclaim his starting job. Sophomore Ronald Talley started the final four games in Frome's place.

The 6-foot-4, 262-pound Talley brings a menacing presence to the Irish line, and not just with an imposing frame. Unlike quieter teammates Abiamiri and Landri, Talley will, on occasion, open his mouth before the ball is snapped.

What does he say?

"Intimidating things," he deadpanned, drawing nervous laughs from several reporters. The Irish hope speed will be their most intimidating attribute this fall. It won't take long to find out, as Notre Dame faces big-play threats Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech), Derrick Williams (Penn State) and Steve Breaston (Michigan) in its first three games. Can the Irish close the gaps?

"On defense, little things easily turn into big problems," Ndukwe said. "If you have a little miscommunication, someone might be a couple feet out of place, that's the difference between a tackle and a touchdown."