Since we don't know the actual objectives, it's difficult to speculate on what they might be. All we can do is assume what might have been the objectives. Where do you start when your offense ranked near the bottom in Division I football last year and you are losing four starters along the offensive line?
The obvious place to start is offensive line. Dan Stevenson and Sean Milligan told Irish Eyes that the focus has been on technique and staying low--the fundamentals. Obviously with so many younger players seeing their first real action, the coaching staff is going to have to work on teaching the fundamentals while other programs are focusing on the scheme. The big question is how far will this teaching set the Irish behind teams like Michigan when the Irish visit Ann Arbor on September 13th of this year?
Some Irish fans might suggest that the Irish won 10 games last year while installing a new offense run by a quarterback that had never run a similar system. While that is an impressive accomplishment, I offer the words of Tyrone Willingham at the beginning of spring. "There is no substitute for experience," said Willingham.
Experience in the trenches is likely what Willingham was referring to. The 2002 offensive line might have underachieved last year but they did produce some critical drives throughout the year to win some big games against Michigan and Pittsburgh and another big game in Tallahassee. "When you've got guys that have been in Michigan Stadium, or down in Tallahassee or in the Coliseum, there is not substitute for that," said Willingham. "That is a certain amount of calm that comes with you when you have been there." The Irish will be missing that experience this year and that could cause Notre Dame some problems early in the season.
That game experience will hard to replace. By all reports, Carlyle Holiday has made drastic improvement as a quarterback this spring. The Irish have four experienced wide receivers returning. 1,100-yard rusher Ryan Grant will be returning and possibly another more explosive back in Julius Jones will return. It appears all the Irish tight ends will be returning as well so the offense could be explosive--it will likely all depend on the offensive line. If the offensive line doesn't perform, it likely won't matter how many playmakers they have on offense.
The good news is Sean Milligan returns after playing and starting most of the last two years. Dan Stevenson appears to be emerging as on of the best offensive linemen in recent memory. Jim Molinaro also returns and arguably played as well as anyone along the offensive line last year. The other two positions could be the deciding factor on how much this team can accomplish in 2003. Not one single position will be the deciding factor or even two but Irish fans witnessed last year what one mental mistake at the wrong time can do to the success of the offense. It only takes one player missing an assignment for bad things to happen.
I certainly don't want to put any pressure on Zach Giles, Bob Morton, Mark LeVoir and Darrin Mitchell. Every player on the team will make mistakes and likely many. They can't help the fact that they haven't been through the wars like the other experienced veterans. I am simply pointing out how close this offense could be to surprising a lot of people who follow college football in 2003.
Could it be as simple as coaching up two players? The Irish certainly fixed many of the secondary problems last year as Trent Walters had Gerome Sapp, Vontez Duff and Shane Walton playing better than they ever had. They also had experience and something LeVoir, Morton, Giles and Mitchell have very little of. Brandon Hoyte might be a good example to draw from. He didn't start but certainly played like a starter, as did Justin Tuck. It can be done and for the Irish to have success, they must get two of these four ready to start and the other two ready to fill in.
I'm sure there are many objectives Willingham wanted to accomplish this spring. Likely none will have as much impact on the success of this team than the play of the starting center and left guard. Fundamentals are a great starting point and a necessary focus but sooner or later the focus has to turn towards the scheme. The ability of these young players to execute the fundamentals and the scheme will be critical. Irish fans will get a first-hand look at both positions starting Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold game. Many eyes will be watching both positions.