Improvement When it Counts

We continue our Player Improvement series with a look at the Irish offensive line, a unit that played it's best football in several seasons at the program, but one that sometimes struggled vs. a handful of stout defenses the Irish faced last fall.

We began Monday with a review of the team's three returning running backs and later covered its quintet of Wide Receivers.

Tuesday we examined the team's tight ends as a likely focal point of the offense, and yesterday moved onto the quarterbacks, discussing the position rather than initiating another debate regarding the eventual starter.

Today's focus is on the group that ensures each can do its job as easily as possible:

Progress Against the Powers

As documented in a recent article that ranked 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave as the offense's most indispensable player for 2012, the team's 2011 offensive line performance can be divided into two parts: with Cave and without.

But even with a healthy Cave, the 2011 front wall was inconsistent vs. top defenses such as USC (41 rushing yards albeit on just 14 carries), Michigan State (just 103 second-half yards on 23 snaps), and Michigan (repeated 3rd-and-short failures in the second half).

Notre Dame's offensive line might be the team's best unit, and regardless of your personal ranking, its light years better than the groups that took the field for Charlie Weis from 2006 (his second season) through 2009. And the 2011 group was better than Brian Kelly's first in 2010.

The next step, however, is making good on the words of 5th-year senior swingman (G/C) Mike Golic, Jr., this spring:

"One of the things Coach (Harry) Hiestand's really tried to instill in us is that to be a Notre Dame offensive lineman you have to exemplify toughness at all times. You have to go out there and exert your dominance on the defense and that will make our defense better and us better, going out there and trying to hammer guys on each and every play. Really just getting used to playing at game speed at all times."

And against better teams. Of Notre Dame's 25 rushing scores - a nine-season high - 11 occurred vs. two Service Academy defenses, Air Force (109th vs. the run) and Navy (92nd). Another three were against Maryland (111th ranked rush defense). That's 14 of 25 total rushing scores vs. the three worst rush defenses the team faced.

The Irish never managed more than two rushing scores vs. their remaining 10 foes and scored more than three total offensive touchdowns against just two teams last fall: Michigan and Purdue. (The Wolverines remarkably produced the 6th-best scoring defense last fall; Purdue finished 63rd.)

Martin, Cave, Chris Watt, and likely the new right side will again fare well protecting the team's quarterback of choice. Can they assert their dominance in the running game when it matters most and against the best the 2012 schedule has to offer?

It's perhaps the most important question for 2012, including who ends up behind center.

Defending the Irish

Their numbers could vary greatly next fall, but below is a look at the 2011 defensive rankings (scoring defense, total defense, and rush defense) of the 12 teams on the 2012 Irish schedule. For the sake of reference, Notre Dame's defense ranked #24 and #47, respectively.

Navy: Scoring Defense -- 78; Rush Defense --92
Purdue: Scoring Defense -- 63; Rush Defense -- 82
Michigan State: Scoring Defense -- 10; Rush Defense -- 9
Michigan: Scoring Defense -- 6; Rush Defense -- 39
Miami: Scoring Defense -- 18; Rush Defense -- 68
Stanford: Scoring Defense -- 30; Rush Defense -- 3
BYU: Scoring Defense -- 22; Rush Defense -- 19
Oklahoma: Scoring Defense -- 31; Rush Defense -- 43
Pittsburgh: Scoring Defense -- 38; Rush Defense -- 21
Boston College: Scoring Defense -- 43; Rush Defense -- 59
Wake Forest: Scoring Defense -- 65; Rush Defense -- 79
USC: Scoring Defense -- 45; Rush Defense -- 18 Top Stories