SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -Tom Zbikowski is getting a second chance at his last season at Notre Dame.
A year ago at this time Zbikowski was captain of the second-ranked Fighting Irish, coming off a season in which he was named a third-team All-American safety, and expected to graduate in May 2007 then move on to the NFL.
Zbikowski graduated in May with sociology and computer applications degrees, but he's back with the unranked Irish, preparing for the opener Saturday against Georgia Tech instead of playing in the pros.
``It wasn't because he loves going to school,'' Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. ``I think that he's coming back here because he knows that his worth should be higher than where it ended up last year based off of what ended up happening.''
What ended up happening was Zbikowski put on weight during the spring of 2006 to bulk up for his professional boxing debut at Madison Square Garden and entered the season weighing 215 pounds, which he now feels was too heavy. He then injured his shoulder on a vicious hit during a punt return against Purdue in the fifth game of the season.
``He was never the same the rest of the year,'' Weis said. ``I think that sometimes you don't realize because the kid is so tough, you don't realize a guy is playing with pain and borderline playing with injury.''
Zbikowski was again a third-team All-America selection last season, but he didn't have the same kind of season he had in 2005. He finished with 79 tackles, eight more than the season before, but he went from five interceptions to none. He dropped from averaging 14 yards a punt return to averaging 9 yards. He went from scoring four touchdowns to scoring one.
``It was very disappointing not playing the way you want to play,'' Zbikowski said.
Looking back, Zbikowski said he just wasn't himself at times. He may not have been as hungry for success last season as he needed to be.
A team captain again, his goal for this season isn't to improve his draft stock or to show critics anything. He wants to prove something to himself.
``I want to look at the tape and not really care about what numbers or what ranking I'm at because that means nothing,'' he said. ``When you're watching film with guys on your team and the 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.''
People haven't had much good to say about the Irish secondary in recent years. Notre Dame has ranked in the bottom half in the nation in pass defense for three straight seasons, finishing 60th in the country last season giving up 203 yards a game passing.
But the Irish are hoping to turn things around this season with a new 3-4 defense and new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, a former assistant with the New York Jets.
``I think with our track record on defense we have a lot to prove,'' Zbikowski said. ``I know coach Brown wants to make a statement on defense, and we do, too. A new philosophy, new coaches, a new start.''
Zbikowski heads into Saturday's game against Georgia Tech 10 pounds lighter than last year and feeling healthier, faster and stronger. He said his main goal this season is to have some fun with his teammates.
``We want to go make plays and not put any added pressure on ourselves,'' he said. ``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.''
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