Yesterday we launched our Best of the 2000’s series with our #11 ranked player, Julius Jones. Today our countdown continues with one of the more interesting athletes to come through Notre Dame in the last decade – Tom Zbikowski.
Notre Dame career summary
Tom Zbikowski, aka Tommy Z, aka Zibby, came to Notre Dame as part of the one great recruiting class that Tyrone Willingham was able to assemble after the 2002 season. Zbikowski joined the likes of Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Victor Abiamiri, Trevor Laws, and John Carlson in the 2003 that laid the foundation for the back to BCS births for Notre Dame in 2005 – unfortunately Willingham’s next two classes also laid the foundation for the disastrous 2007 season but I digress (and yes I am aware that Charlie Weis’s mismanagement of his roster also played a major role in the debacle).
After playing quarterback in an option style offense in high school, Zbikowski spent the 2003 season redshirting while adjusting to the defensive side of the ball and settling in at safety. Zbikowski wouldn’t be on the sidelines for too long though. Heading into the 2004 season, he locked down a starting job in fall camp.
By the third week of his sophomore season Zbikowski was named the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week after his 75 yard strip and score against Michigan State. Throughout the 2003 season Zbikowski showed the promise that made him such a highly sought after recruit. He was fourth on the team in tackles with 70 and it seemed like he was well on his way to stardom.
2005 saw Notre Dame bring in a new coaching staff which meant a new defensive system for Zbikowski and the rest of the Irish offense. Zibby stayed in the starting lineup though and once again was fourth on the team in tackles – this time with 71. Zbikowski also set a personal career best with a team leading five interceptions – two of which he returned for touchdowns. As a junior Zibkowski was also used as a punt returner for the first time in his collegiate career and he responded by becoming one of the most dangerous punt returnmen in the country returning two punts for touchdowns and averaging 14.0 yards on 27 punts.
In 2006, Zbikowski was named a team captain along with Quinn and Travis Thomas and was the defensive leader of the Irish. His senior season started off with a bang when he scooped up an ill-advised option pitch from Penn State quarterback Anthony Morelli and raced 25 yards into the end-zone as Notre Dame ran Penn State out of the building in the ’06 home opener. Defensively though, that was the main highlight of the year for Zbikowski as a senior though he did improve his tackle total again in 2006 by recording 79 stops – good enough for 3rd on the team. He didn’t have quite the impact on special teams as he did in 2005, but still averaged 9.0 yards a punt and recorded his third career punt return for a touchdown against North Carolina.
After the 2006 season Zbikowski faced a tough decision – return for a 5th season or leave for the NFL. Reviews of Zbikowski were mixed and mock drafts had him going anywhere from the first round to the second day of the draft. He ended up deciding to come back in 2007 even though most expected Notre Dame to have a down year after losing several key members of the squad to graduation. For the second season in a row, Zbikowski was named a team captain – a distinction that carried more responsibility this time around because of the youth of the team. Throughout that disaster of a season, Zbikowski showed a lot of character and leadership by not complaining about his career ending amid one of the worst seasons Notre Dame has ever had. Weis rewarded Zbikowski for his loyalty by inserting the former high school quarterback under center in the fourth quarter of the Duke game on senior day for the Irish generating one of the loudest cheers Notre Dame Stadium saw the entire season.
For the third year in a row, Zbikowski improved his tackle total in 2007 and ended his career with a personal best 80 tackles. He also added another two interceptions and picked up his second career sack.
Why Tom Zbikowski made the list
Zbikowski took a lot of heat on the various Notre Dame message boards and blogs over the years and most of it was unwarranted. Not all of it was unfair – Zbikowski did have a bad habit of biting hard on play action fakes throughout his career and sometimes his aggressiveness worked against, but at the same time, Notre Dame fans expected a lot of out Zibby because his career started off with a bang and showed so much promise. When you win defensive player of the week honors a few starts into your career it’s hard to live up to those expectations.
Bottom line though, Zbikowski was a playmaker. Period. In 2005 alone he returned two punts for touchdowns and two interceptions for touchdowns – all of which were game changing or sealing plays. His return against USC changed the momentum of the game (see play below). His interception return against BYU put the final nail in the coffin after the Cougars hung around for most of the game. And against Tennessee, Zibby almost single handily willed the Irish to victory with his punt and interception returns for a touchdown.
If you think about some of the plays that Zibby had made over the years that were called back you get an even greater sense for how he made big plays in the biggest spots. People forget about his punt return for a touchdown against Michigan State in 2006 that was called back because of a penalty because of the crazy 4th quarterback comeback. Zibby’s return, had it stood would have put the wheels in motion for the Notre Dame comeback even sooner though. He nearly turned around the 2006 Fiesta Bowl as well with his apparent fumble return for a touchdown that was called back after video review on a play that could have easily been with held after the review.
Like our #11 player Julius Jones, Zbikowski had the talent to be much higher on this list, but three defensive systems in 4 years certainly didn’t help him maximize his potential while in South Bend. And Like many Notre Dame players over the last decade, there are a lot of what if’s surrounding Zbikowski’s career. For instance, what if he didn’t have to play for three defensive coordinators during his career and more importantly what if any of those three were able to actually fix the Notre Dame defense? By the time Zbikowski’s career was over though he was a four year starter and a two time captain and was a playmaker who impacted games in a lot of ways – especially on special teams. In fact, his contributions on special teams are what pushed him up our lost of top players over some others who just missed the cut.
Notable performances, records & awards at Notre Dame
- Forced a fumble and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown in 2004 against Michigan State earning himself the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week Award.
- Intercepted Chad Henne near the goal line in Notre Dame’s 17-10 upset over Michigan in 2005.
- Returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown while breaking several tackles along the way against USC in 2005 to give Notre Dame a 21-14 lead.
- Recorded 3rd longest interception return for a touchdown in Notre Dame history (83 yards) against BYU in 2005.
- Returned a punt 78 yards and an interception 33 yards both for touchdowns against Tennessee in 2005. He also added a sack and nearly had a second punt return for a score.
- Made what could have (should have?) been the turning point of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl when he returned an apparent Anthony Gonzalez fumble for a score. The play, however, was over turned after replay because Gonzalez was ruled to never have possession of the ball.
- Scooped up an Anthony Morelli fumble and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown in Notre Dame’s route of Penn State in the 2006 season opener.
- Returned his 3rd career punt for a touchdown against North Carolina (52 yards) tying him with Tim Brown, Nick Rassas, Ricky Watters, and Allen Rossum.
- 3rd Team AP All American in 2005 and 2006.
- 2nd Team Walter Camp All American in 2006.
- Team captain in both 2006 and 2007.
- 9th All Time in career tackles at Notre Dame with 300 and 1st all time amongst defensive backs.
- 1st All Time in career fumble return yardage at Notre Dame with 100 yards.
- 3rd All Time in career punt return yards – 757 – behind Frank Carideo and Dave Duerson.
Post Notre Dame career
Zbikowski was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2008 NFL Draft – #86 overall – by the Baltimore Ravens. Over the past three season Zbikowski has played primarily on special teams and as a reserve safety for the Ravens. In 2010 though, Zbikowski got his first taste of starting experience when he filled in at free safety for the injured Ed Reed for the first six weeks of the season. Zbikowski was more than solid while playing out of position from his normal strong safety spot. Zbikowski didn’t record any interceptions in 2010, but did pick up his first two career picks in 2009.
Once a new collective bargaining agreement is in place, the Ravens could very well lose starting strong safety Dawan Landry to free agency which would give Zbikowski a golden opportunity to secure a starting spot on a regular basis for the first time in his career though he’ll have to battle with fellow fourth year veteran Haruki Nakamura for the job should Landry sign elsewhere. The lockout situation could actually help Zbikowski in his bid to earn a starting spot. With the lost time for OTA’s and the potential to lose time at training camp, the Ravens may be more inclined to look for a potential Landry replacement from within.
Zbikowski also resumed his boxing career this past off-season with the NFL Lockout underway. Zibby fought in three super-welterweight boxing matches in the spring – winning all three. Zbikowski recently decided against taking part in any more fights for the near future though he hopes to resume his boxing career after his football career ends.
Check back tomorrow for #9 on our list and feel free to make some predictions and let us know what you think of the list so far in the comments!
Best of the 2000’s