Wooden turns corner for Irish

Ambrose Wooden: The former Gilman quarterback has found a home in Notre Dame's defensive backfield.

September 16, 2005|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The transformation of Ambrose Wooden has happened so suddenly that he has to remind himself that it's real.

Yes, that really was Wooden at sold-out Michigan Stadium last week, making two touchdown-saving tackles from his cornerback position to help Notre Dame earn a huge victory. Yes, that was Wooden again a week earlier, making his first start as a junior and producing 12 tackles in a season-opening blowout win at Pittsburgh.

And it's the same Wooden who, a month ago, came into the Fighting Irish's preseason camp with scant playing experience, wondering how he would fit into the team's youthful defensive backfield under new head coach Charlie Weis.

With two injuries and two position changes behind him, the ex-Gilman star quarterback who set a Maryland state record with 7,261 career total offensive yards has officially found a new home.

"I came to camp and didn't know what was going on. You just want to fill a role and be a student of the game," Wooden said. "I kind of came out of nowhere. I'm living a dream."

No. 10 Notre Dame, which plays host to Michigan State tomorrow in its home opener, is off to an unexpected 2-0 start. And there might not be a bigger surprise among the Irish than Wooden, who is tied for second on the team with 17 tackles and looking increasingly comfortable at one of the game's most challenging positions.

Before impressing the coaching staff with his ability to cover opposing receivers and provide aggressive support against the run, Wooden paid his dues in the background.

After finishing his run at Gilman, where he led his team to a 10-0 record and an MIAA A Conference title as a senior by rushing for 1,635 yards and 22 touchdowns and passing for 1,217 yards and 13 more scores, Wooden had a tough transition in South Bend.

First, former coach Tyrone Willingham converted him to receiver. But his freshman season never took off, as a hamstring injury grounded him, leaving Wooden with a year of eligibility he can use after his senior year. Last fall, as a backup cornerback, he played primarily on special teams while logging nearly seven minutes all season in the defensive backfield.

After Weis replaced Willingham last winter, another undisclosed injury knocked Wooden out of spring practice, leaving him to play catch-up in August.

"People talk so much about experience, and experience is important," Notre Dame linebacker Brandon Hoyte said. "The bottom line is you have to make plays, and [Wooden] has been making plays from Day One."

Weis told the South Bend Tribune: "[Wooden] was really an unknown to me. I knew he had athletic ability, and from my dealings with him I knew he was intelligent. But he's another one of those who falls into the pleasant surprise category."

Before long, Wooden, 5 feet 11, 197 pounds, had beaten out sophomore cornerback Leo Ferrine for a starting job. He joined a young secondary that included just one returning starter in junior safety Tom Zbikowski.

And the unit has some atoning to do, since Notre Dame ranked 116th out of 117 Division I-A schools in pass defense in 2004 by allowing 281.3 yards a game, the worst mark in school history.

Wooden has felt both sides of the cornerback game. Besides deflecting a pass and making a pair of touchdown-saving tackles in the 17-10 win at Michigan, Wooden got burned by Wolverines receiver Mario Manningham him for a 25-yard score.

"I had my ups and downs, but that's part of the job. You need a one-play memory. I'm catching up with the speed of the game," Wooden said. "It was shocking to see how many people were [at Pitt]. I was just thrilled to be out there. Then we're playing in front of 110,000 people [at Michigan]. It was probably the biggest deal of my career. Right now, I'm all about learning."

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