SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Perhaps it's a little early to start feeling nostalgic about 2005, but that hasn't stopped Tom Zbikowski.
The Notre Dame senior safety sees plenty of parallels between this Fighting Irish squad and the one that overachieved its way to a 9-3 record two years ago in Charlie Weis' debut season.
"Before that season, there weren't any big names. … There were guys who had talent who wanted to make a name for themselves and wanted to make plays," Zbikowski said. "That's what you're seeing right now."
And that's what was missing last year when a star-studded Notre Dame team fell short of its lofty expectations. Zbikowski's performance reflected his team's fortunes.
Notre Dame once again posted a three-loss season that included a BCS invitation. Zbikowski earned third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press for a second consecutive year.
But it was clear to most fans that the Irish weren't quite the same team – and that Zbikowski wasn't quite the same player.
Although Zbikowski actually improved his tackle totals last season, he didn't deliver the big plays that had helped make him one of the nation's most exciting players.
Zbikowski picked off five passes in 2005, but he didn't have any interceptions last season. He finished 40th in the nation in punt return average after ranking 13th in that category the previous year.
That might help explain why Zbikowski decided to return to Notre Dame for a fifth season.
"I just wasn't happy with the way I played at all, really," Zbikowski said. "I have too much pride to leave on that type of note."
Zbikowski made the best decision for himself.
Although he was considered a probable early draft pick before the season, Zbikowski's disappointing 2006 campaign hurt his stock considerably.
He was better off staying out of a draft class that already featured plenty of talented safeties. Florida's Reggie Nelson, Louisiana State's LaRon Landry, Miami's Brandon Meriweather and Texas' Michael Griffin all are potential first-round picks who probably would have gone ahead of Zbikowski.
"He would have fallen like a rock," said Frank Coyle, the head scout of draftinsiders.com. "He looked like a sure top-50 pick in August, but there's no way he'd be a top-50 pick now. He'd probably go somewhere in the third or maybe in the fourth round. He missed too many tackles."
Zbikowski also made the best decision for Notre Dame.
Heavy graduation losses left the Irish in dire need of an experienced playmaker such as Zbikowski. Notre Dame returns only three starters on offense – including none at quarterback, running back or wide receiver – so the Irish must have dramatic improvement from a defense that allowed a total of 85 points in their final two games last year.
New defensive coordinator Corwin Brown noted that it's particularly essential for Notre Dame to have consistency at the safety position.
"At d-line you can make a mistake, and you've got linebackers and safeties and corners that are going to take care of you," Brown said. "At linebacker, you can make a mistake and you've got the secondary. If you make a mistake at safety, the band's going to be playing."
The Irish have heard too many opposing teams' fight songs lately.
Notre Dame allowed six touchdowns that covered at least 50 yards last season. And it wasn't merely the Southern California and Louisiana States of the world busting loose for big plays against the Irish.
Purdue's Selwyn Lymon broke free for an 88-yard touchdown catch against Notre Dame. The Irish allowed North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks to score on a 72-yard reception.
Zbikowski noted that the secondary put special emphasis this spring on making sure it doesn't allow so many big plays. The Irish allowed only one gain of longer than 17 yards – a 31-yard scramble by quarterback Demetrius Jones – in the Blue-Gold Game that ended spring practice last weekend.
Although the Notre Dame offense focused on establishing a running attack last weekend and rarely threw downfield, this game still represented a step in the right direction.
HOPING TO BOUNCE BACK
Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski improved his tackle totals last year, but he didn't provide nearly as many of the big plays that helped make him one of the nation's best-known defensive players. Here's a look at Zbikowski's statistics from the last two seasons.
Punt Return Average
Special Teams TDs
"To give up big plays that turn into touchdowns, that's going to hurt you all the time,'' Zbikowski said. "Coach Brown is always saying he doesn't want 'explosives,' or big plays."
Zbikowski instead wants to reignite the explosiveness he showed two years ago, when his flair for the dramatic made him a staple of Saturday night highlight shows.
He returned an interception and a punt for touchdowns in a 41-21 victory over Tennessee. Zbikowski also broke three tackles on his way to the end zone in an electrifying 60-yard punt return against Southern California and had a game-clinching 83-yard interception return against Brigham Young.
Zbikowski didn't have the ball in his hands on defense nearly as often last year. He's hoping that changes this fall.
"When Coach Brown got here, that was his main concern for us – hitting and attacking the football and making sure we make a conscious effort to strip balls (loose)," Zbikowski said. "When one guy's got him wrapped up, come in and go after the ball and attack it like that – scooping and scoring and trying to get points on defense."
If Zbikowski has his way, he won't be the only one scoring points on defense.
Zbikowski showed his unselfishness off the field recently when the part-time boxer donated almost $50,000 in proceeds from his March 6 bout to various charities. He also has shown his unselfishness on the field by tutoring Notre Dame's younger defensive backs.
"He's kind of like a safety net for those guys," senior linebacker Maurice Crum Jr. said. "When they're nervous and scared, there's nothing they're going through that he hasn't probably gone through."
The Blue-Gold Game MVP credited Zbikowski for helping him overcome a case of jitters beforehand. Bruton responded to his teammate's encouragement by scoring on a 35-yard interception return.
"He has experience and everything,'' Bruton said. "Just going out there for your first time can be nervous. I was nervous before this game, and he helped me relax. It's nice to have someone you can bond with."
Zbikowski downplays the impact of his leadership.
He insists that the Notre Dame underclassmen are so eager to prove themselves that they don't need much mortification.
"We've got younger guys who want to make plays and who are going to be working hard, so I don't think there will be any problems with leadership," Zbikowski said. "There's definitely a different attitude that we haven't had around here."
Zbikowski and Co. will need plenty of attitude to withstand the adversity they're bound to face this fall. This inexperienced Notre Dame team will grow up in a hurry against one of the nation's toughest early season schedules.
Notre Dame's first nine opponents posted a combined record of 78-40 last year. The Irish travel to Michigan, Penn State, Purdue and UCLA for four of their first six games.
If Zbikowski can help this untested group survive that kind of test, he could go a long way toward impressing all those NFL scouts who fell out of love with him earlier in his career. Zbikowski's punt-returning ability should make him a top prospect if he improves his consistency on defense.
"He made a wise move returning," Coyle said. "You never know. There's nothing to say he can't be a first-round pick."
And if Zbikowski does recapture that 2005 form, there's nothing to say Notre Dame can't confound the skeptics and earn a third consecutive BCS bid.