- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

Navy linebacker Rob Caldwell had a Notre Dame No. 3 jersey in his closet while growing up in Indiana. Like so many other kids in the Midwest, he adored the Fighting Irish and dreamed of running out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium.

Caldwell will fulfill that dream when the Midshipmen face the Irish today. There have been many big-name Irish quarterbacks to sport the number Caldwell wore — Joe Montana and, more recently during Caldwell’s youth, Rick Mirer and Ron Powlus.

“I was a really big Notre Dame fan,” Caldwell said. “I’ve always though about running through that tunnel and playing on that field. There have been so many great players play there.”

Once the Mids have experienced running out of the tunnel and into a sea of 80,000 green-, navy- and gold-clad fans, Caldwell and his defensive mates will have to contend with a quarterback who wears No. 10 and is torching defenses at a rate that even those names mentioned above did not.

Junior Brady Quinn, who has flourished under the tutelage of first-year coach Charlie Weis, is writing a new chapter in the record book of one of the sport’s most storied programs. He already has set the standard for touchdown passes in a game (six against Brigham Young) and a season (23 with three regular-season games and a bowl game to play). Quinn almost assuredly will break the single-season mark for yards today (he needs 106), and four scoring strikes against the Mids would give him the career record.

Oh, and a really big day could put the career record for passing yards (he needs 538) in jeopardy, but that spot will belong to him soon enough regardless. Quinn has helped the Irish score at least 30 points in every game but one this season.

“They’re amazing,” Navy cornerback Jeremy McGown said. “They’re definitely the best college football team I’ll ever step on the field against. … We feel if we handle our responsibilities we can play them just as well as any other team has. Hopefully better since they’ve been killing these other teams.”

While Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and Vince Young appear to have separated from the pack in the 2005 Heisman race, Quinn’s name will be at the forefront of the 2006 list as long as he returns to South Bend, Ind., for his senior campaign.

Caldwell is pretty familiar with Notre Dame’s top target, 6-foot-5 wideout Jeff Samardzija. The pair played in the same athletic district in northwestern Indiana and often competed for headlines in the local newspapers.

“We were always in the paper together, and some people would argue who was better,” Caldwell said. “He’s at Notre Dame and is probably going to the NFL, so I’ll say him.”

Should the Mids slow the potent Irish offense, they also have to contend with defensive back/punt returner Tom Zbikowski, who has blossomed into a dynamic scoring threat. He has returned two punts and two interceptions for touchdowns, including one of each against Tennessee last week.

Navy assistant coach Jeff Monken knows Zbikowski well because he recruited the Arlington Heights, Ill., native to play quarterback in Annapolis.

Zbikowski’s grandfathers were both in the Marine Corps, and he entertained the idea of becoming a Marine Corps officer. He was an accomplished amateur boxer and harbored aspirations of participating in the Olympics.

“I was always around the fight game because my dad was a big fan,” Zbikowski said. “I was interested in learning. I was also sick of getting beat up by my older brother.”

The Naval Academy is home to one of the top boxing facilities in the country, which helped Monken hold out hope. He said he visited with Zbikowski on several occasions, sent him hand-written letters every week and called him at every point allowable by NCAA rules.

“His dad [Edmund] is a heck of a good guy. I had several conversations with him on the phone during the process,” Monken said. “He continued to tell me, ‘Jeff, I’m not wasting your time. We’d really like to keep you guys open as an option. … I don’t want you to forget about him. I know he’s getting recruited by a lot of people.’

“It was fun to recruit him. You’re calling him, and it’s Notre Dame and Nebraska and he’s still mentioning your name, the Navy name. It was fun to recruit a national kid.”

When it came down to it, Zbikowski became too good at football. He was named player of the year in Illinois and made USA Today’s All-American team. Other schools, such as Northwestern and Nebraska, also wanted him to play quarterback, but he chose to play defense at Notre Dame.

He is now a top playmaker on one of the nation’s best teams. He still trains in the offseason — including some sparring with other members of the team (including Quinn) in what he called “lessons” — and has been known to scare some teammates with his shadow boxing act in the locker room. For now, football is his main focus.

Not only did he return a punt for a touchdown against top-ranked Southern California, he made sure Bush knew showboating would not be tolerated. When Bush slowed his pace before reaching the goal line on a long touchdown run, Zbikowski continued to hustle after him and leveled him just after he reached the end zone.

“Not only is he extremely talented, but he plays extremely hard,” Monken said. “There is no prima donna in him. He plays like he is a blue-collar kid. He feels like he has to fight for everything.”

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