A Long, Strange Trip

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered his team's offensive line as one of the program's strength. Their collective journey to that end should not be ignored.

Fifth-year returnees Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr., have had four. Seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt? Three apiece. And redshirt-freshmen Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, and Matt Hegarty? They've experienced two before playing in their first college football games.

What's the topic? Well it's not "continuity" that's for sure. Try offensive line coaches during the careers of each lineman noted above as the Notre Dame football program changes its leader in the offensive trenches as regularly as American Idol changes judges.

Cave and Golic joined the roster in 2008 with Dennis Latina as the unit's head man, his third and final season at the helm. Change came in 2009 when new offensive line coach Tom Verducci entered along with Martin and Watt. One year later, Christian Lombard, the team's projected right tackle starter hit campus as did Brian Kelly's first O-Line leader, Ed Warinner.

Warinner stayed for a second season, enough time to introduce himself to the younger Martin, who now, along with the rest of his veteran teammates, learns the trade from former Chicago Bears assistant and long-time line sage, Harry Hiestand.

For the upperclassmen, its been a long, strange trip indeed.

"When we got in here, we were the whipping boys for everyone," said the elder Martin of his 2009 freshman season under Charlie Weis/Verducci. "I didn't have it as bad as the lines before I got here, but my freshman year and sophomore year (2010) were pretty bad."

Martin's unit inherited "whipping-boy" status for good reason. Two years before his arrival, the 2007 offensive front was the worst in program history, allowing a program-record 58 sacks in 12 games while producing a program-worst 2.1 yards per rush. The 2008 group didn't fare much better, forging the second-worst rushing average in program history, a paltry 3.3 yards per carry, while cutting sacks down significantly (just 20 in 13 contests). But the '08 line was "better" only because it couldn't be worse.

The 2009 group, one that included Cave in a backup role and Martin and Watt as redshirt-freshmen, had its moments, but produced just 3.8 yards per carry while yielding 25 sacks, ultimately fading in a 0-4 November finish.

After an inconsistent 2010 (a rough first nine games but a rewarding 4-0 finish that included a commitment to power football), Notre Dame's offensive line has become arguably the best unit of the Brian Kelly era, playing well for most of 2011 and serving as the team's noted strong point entering this season.

"I think we're really good up the middle, to use a baseball term, and I mean on both sides of the line," said Kelly midway through training camp. "We're going to be able to physically handle ourselves in the trenches against anybody in the country. That's a good feeling right away that you know you're going to go out there and be able to handle yourselves physically."

Its a reality in which the unit's leaders take great pride.

"We know when it comes down to it, the line is the heart and soul of whether we're successful or not," said Cave. "We put that on our shoulders to make things happen so the team can do what they have to do.

"We're an experienced line, we have Mike Golic in there and he played a ton when I was out. We've put it on our shoulders to be one of the best offensive lines in the country. We believe we have a lot to prove and we're looking forward to that opportunity."

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Continuity is required for a successful offensive line, but change doesn't preclude that possibility, not even a change in leadership on a nearly annual basis.

"Its a new perspective and in the O-Line room we're accustomed to new perspectives every year," said Golic of the dawn of the Hiestand era. "That's college football, you have to be able to change and adapt. We have a new coach who has his philosophy and we've bought into that wholeheartedly, and now we're working to perfect things he's asking from us."

According to Golic, that "buy-in" is essential for any group to move forward.

"The biggest challenge is buying into everything (a new coach) asks," he said. "They have their philosophy and technique, and the sooner you buy into that the better it is for the individual and the group, and that's something our group has done with coach Hiestand."

Golic, who's had the same number of offensive line coaches as he's had career starts entering his fifth season, noted part of that philosophy is a return to polishing fundamentals and technique. Its no longer a matter of knowing assignment and alignment, but also technique for every stance and potential block. Watt, a senior mauler at left guard, offered another perspective on the unit's new head man:

"He definitely wants us to be more aggressive. We want to set that tempo and be aggressive on every drill. If we don't go as hard as we can he let's us know. And that's part of the challenge, understanding what the new coach wants from us, and just how intense we have to be. Kind of gauging his expectations.

"It was great doing those spring drills with him and it prepared us for fall camp, though he picked up the intensity in fall camp. Spring was about trying to get us in the rhythm of things but he picked it up on us and it was noticeable."

Hiestand's focus on technique and aggression are elements of his chief goal, that heretofore elusive quality of continuity.

"Playing offensive line you have to know everyone's responsibility, you have to be on the same page," said Golic. "Coach Hiestand always talks about seeing the defense through one set of eyes. When you have knowledge of what each position is doing in-depth and having that versatility, that helps you do everything better. You see the same thing as a unit."

Throughout their collective careers, the Irish offensive front has yet to enjoy the benefit of a consistent message to date. Luckily for the program and its fans, this veteran, battle-seasoned group has apparently fully embraced its new voice and vision for 2012.

Whipping Boys No More

Notre Dame's improvement in the trenches has been stark, though gradual since the offensive line hit rock bottom in 2007.

2007: 58 sacks allowed, 2.1 yards per carry, 11 rushing TD, 3.5 yards per play, 2 games in excess of 150 rushing yards

2008 22 sacks allowed, 3.3 yards per carry, 11 rushing TD, 5.2 yards per play, 3 games in excess of 150 rushing yards

2009: 25 sacks allowed, 3.8 yards per carry, 13 rushing TD, 6.4 yards per play, 4 games in excess of 150 rushing yards

2010: 20 sacks allowed, 4.0 yards per carry, 11 rushing TD, 5.5 yards per play, 6 games in excess of (147) rushing yards

2011: 17 sacks allowed, 4.8 yards per carry, 25 rushing TD, 5.9 yards per play, 8 games in excess of 150 rushing yards

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