The offense will only be as good as the player leading it. Carlyle Holiday struggled at times last year but he has made vast improvement over the winter months and that has Diedrick excited about his quarterback. "I don't think there's any question about that," said Diedrick on Holiday's improvement. "I think that's what you really anticipated from him, that there would be not only a good deal of improvement on the mental side and feeling a lot more comfortable but also the physical abilities. He's done a great job in the off-season, working really hard on his mechanics, on his throwing motion and also working real hard on his accuracy and placement of the ball. I think that has really shown through spring ball and I'm very, very pleased with the progress that he's made from a year ago this time."
Holiday's mechanics have really improved as reported earlier by Irish Eyes. He looks very polished in practice in his set up, footwork, throwing motion, release and his arm strength. "There were things that we tried to work on in the fall. I think you kind of mend things but I don't think you can really fix things during the season. Your focus is in so many different areas and to try to put all of that on him at one time would've been tremendously difficult. It was hard enough as it was trying to come in and learn a new system, be productive and be consistent. What we did was kind of wait until the off-season and these are the things that we really identified and wanted him to work on and he really went to work and did a great job over the winter."
Holiday has improved, no question but Diedrick does see room for improvement over the summer. "I would say there are several areas that I want him to continue to work on. I really want him to make the same improvement that he made from the bowl game to spring ball. I want him to make that same improvement or more from the end of spring ball to when we come to training camp."
The Irish offense seemed to really shut down after Ryan Grant was injured last year. Diedrick says this really hurt the offense and what they were able to do. "You look at the productivity of Ryan, early in the season, up until probably his significant injury, I think there is a tremendous difference there. I think that the best friend a quarterback can have is a good running game. If you can keep a running back healthy and you've got a good running game, it's going to help you tremendously as a quarterback. There were a lot of those situations that because we didn't have as strong a running game as we would've liked, we were always in a difficult third and long situation. To put it all on one person or two or three people is difficult to do. As you look at the latter part of our season, if you look at our first down productivity, I think that is where we were struggling."
Having both Ryan Grant and Rashon Powers-Neal hurt limited what the Irish could do offensively and Diedrick said it limited his play-calling as well. "It's the same thing you face when you've got one quarterback and you're trying to keep him healthy. You're taking certain dimensions and certain things away from your game. If you do that, you're really just tying one hand behind your back and that probably in not fair to the offense. You try to get as much use and mileage as you can but still you want to try to be somewhat protective of them and not be abusive and expose them too much to further injury that will take them out of the game."
Tight End Jared Clark has really started to become a factor for the Irish. In the two-minute drill Irish Eyes watched today, Clark caught three balls and looked very quick. Diedrick talked about what Clark could mean for this offense. "Jared is really a talented athlete. He's got great athletic skills and that was one of the reasons we were excited when he opted to move to the tight end position. I felt he brought great athletic ability plus good speed to the position that we desperately needed. You get a tight end that can run and is athletic like that, it gives you a chance to spread the field and gives you a better chance to be more productive."
All of the Irish weapons on offense won't matter much if the offensive line cannot give Holiday enough time to find them or open holes for a healthy Ryan Grant, Rashon Powers-Neal and possibly Julius Jones. Center and left guard will be critical but Diedrick is confident the younger guys will get the job done. "I don't have any doubt that those guys can get the job done. I don't think they're probably going to step in immediately and replace Jeff Faine. All we are looking for is someone to step in and give us some solid play. Do all the things, make the calls, get everyone going in the right direction, get the snap and then hold your own at the center position. If either of those guys or both of those guys are able to accomplish that, I think we will be very, very fine up front."
The Irish should have a strong receiving corps in 2003. Omar Jenkins has played a lot of football at Notre Dame. Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight got thrown into the fire as true freshmen and Ronnie Rodamer is entering his fourth year. Diedrick thinks all could make some big plays for the Irish this year. "Omar's performance a year ago, he was probably our most consistent guy out of the entire group. You look at both of the two young guys that really played from day one. I think Maurice has made tremendous strides. He's a lot more physical and a lot more mature now as I think Rhema is. I think both of them will improve tremendously next year. Ronnie has been given a chance to really step into that rotation and earn some playing time. The one thing about Ronnie is that he's got tremendous hands; he's very consistent in catching the ball and doing the little things. He's an outstanding blocker, a very physical blocker so I think there are some really good roles each one of them will play. As far as which guy will be the big-play man, everyone is going to have the opportunity, it will be nice if they all become that guy."
One position that doesn't get talked about a lot is fullback. The Irish lost all their fullbacks from last year and have nobody that has played the position previously. Who will be the fullback and will Diedrick use a lot of one-back sets next year? "The one-back has always been a big part of our offense as has the fullback. The stronger you are at fullback, the more dimensions you have as an attacking offense. Rashon (Powers-Neal) will probably end up playing both positions as will Nate Schiccatano probably. I think with both of those guys, we're asking them to step into a new role as a fullback also with the possibility that they can play tailback. It gives Ashley (McConnell) a tremendous opportunity coming in. How much playing time, will he be ready? We probably won't know until he comes to training camp. The thing that we've always said is that if a young man is going to help our team, if they are going to help us be successful, they're going to play."
The battle for the number two quarterback position continues. Pat Dillingham and Chris Olsen continue to battle for the number two spot and Diedrick doesn't foresee that will be solved until the fall. "We've tried to put those guys into situations, even tonight and we will in the spring game. I want to give them an opportunity where they are going to get 15 full practices. If it's clearly separable at that time and we are able to name a number two, we most definitely will. If were not able to, it's not the end of the world and it's not a big concern. Both of those guys have a long summer ahead of them and a lot of developing needs to be done. They've got to make that jump now because there's another good guy coming in that's probably going to continue to push them."
Diedrick seemed very excited about his quarterback and what the future holds for this offense. He seems very comfortable with where his unit is right now and confident the young offensive linemen can do the job. The offense will be further along this year than last year because they already understand the scheme better. The focus remains on the fundamentals this spring and Diedrick seems pleased with what he is seeing out of his offensive unit. He will have to have this unit ready as the Irish face eight bowl teams right out of the gate.