Notre Dame senior safety Tom Zbikowski may not be one of the top safety prospects entering this year's NFL draft, but he is, as future Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells would put it: "one football playing dude."
"All day tough" is how Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis described Zbikowski. Just how tough is made evident by watching him in the ring. Zbikowski is an accomplished boxer and boasts a 75-15 record in 90 career fights. Last June, in New York City's Madison Square Garden, Zbikowski made his professional debut and fought on the under card of a professional heavyweight bout. He knocked his opponent Robert Bell out 49 seconds into the first round, despite Bell's considerable advantages in height, weight and reach.
Another example of Zbikowski's Conrad Dobler-like mean streak was witnessed at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine. Before he bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times, Zbikowski curtly told the spotter, Arizona Cardinals strength and conditioning coach, John Lott, to "move" so he could slide onto the bench from the back. Then in the middle of Zbikowski's lift, Lott, who is somewhat of a colorful character, shouted "Come on Rudy!" to which Zbikowski replied in mid press, and with a bit of a menacing tone, "Don't call me that again." Needless to say, Lott continued to shout encouragement but declined to use the "Rudy" crack again.
After playing quarterback in high school in his home town of Buffalo Grove, Ill., Zbikowski did not see the field at all as a reserve safety for Notre Dame in 2003.
In the spring of 2004, Zbikowski won the starting strong safety position. He started at strong safety in all 12 games for the Irish that year, ending the season with 70 tackles. He also excelled on special teams, returning punts and covering kickoffs.
A year later in 2005, Zbikowski again started all 12 games. Notre Dame posted a 9-3 record, were ranked ninth in the country, and earned a post-season appearance in the Fiesta Bowl. Zbikowski played a big part in that success both as a safety and special teams player. He scored four touchdowns that year, two on interception returns and two on punt returns. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 71 and led the team with five interceptions. Zbikowski also returned 27 punts for 379 yards, an average of 14.0 yards per return. He was selected as an Associated Press Third-Team All-American.
In 2006, Zbikowski, along with quarterback Brady Quinn and running back Travis Thomas, was voted team captain by his teammates. He started 12 of 13 games, missing one game due to an injury. He ended the year with 79 tackles, including one for a loss. He had two pass breakups and a forced fumble. He returned another fumble 25 yards for a touchdown. He returned one punt 52 yards for a touchdown against North Carolina. At the end of the year, Zbikowski was again selected as a Third-Team All-American by the Associated Press and was granted an additional year of eligibility.
Zbikowski was voted team captain again in his senior year, registering 80 tackles and two interceptions. Zbikowski enters the 2008 NFL Draft with the eighth-highest tackle count in Notre Dame's history. His three punt returns that went for touchdowns ties him with two prominent Notre Dame products, former Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown, and former NFL running back Ricky Watters, for the most in school history.
Zbikowski may not be the most physically gifted player in the world, but he makes up for that with a gigantic heart, great intensity, a superbly strong work ethic and great leadership skills. He has added a little bulk, weighing in at the Scouting Combine at 211 pounds (5-foot-11 1/4). However, his body remains lean at only 8 percent body fat.
Zbikowski is a scrapper who plays angry without losing focus. Pound for pound, he is strong for his size. His 24 bench reps of 225 pounds at the combine led all of the defensive backs and would have placed him in the middle of the pack among the offensive lineman. He shows instincts and intelligence. He has good combination of both physical and mental attributes.
Showing good balance in the return game, Zbikowski is hard to knock off his feet. He has quality vision and is very cagy mentally. He brings an on-field confidence that comes with the territory of being a less than gifted player from the physical standpoint.
Zbikowski's aggressiveness can certainly be an asset, but at times it has also been a liability, as he has shown a tendency to bite hard on play-fakes. He has had issues in coverage, often getting blown past over the top when covering the deep routes.
Not a sure tackler, Zbikowski often whiffs at the ball carrier, especially in the open field. He tries to use too many arm tackles and often doesn't wrap up well enough.
With little fluidity to his movements while returning with the ball in his hands, Zbikowski becomes an easy target for the faster players of the NFL. His lack of natural athletic ability is a concern, and he isn't extremely fast. His 4.52 40 time at the combine was better than most expected, but that doesn't help him a lot in the NFL when one considers his general lack of athleticism.
Attitude is a bit of concern, too. Zbikowski often comes across as being smug and overly self-absorbed during interviews, which could rub some NFL folks the wrong way.
Expected Draft Placement
For teams drafting solely on physical dimension and talent, Zbikowski is not a top consideration for the safety position. However, he possesses qualities and intangibles that make up for his physical shortcomings.
In the NFL, Zbikowski could probably transition into a player that is called up into the box to play against the run, but he needs to improve greatly on his tackling ability, as well as consistency, for this to happen.
At the very least, Zbikowski has the potential for a career as a special teamer and backup safety. In this regard, Zbikowski would be drafted as highly as a late third-round pick, but he most likely falls into the late fourth or top of the fifth round.