John McDonell has had the most difficult time of any coach on the staff. He's had to prepare two new starters at offensive center and offensive guard. He had the luxury of having the only returning starter along the offensive line in Sean Milligan until Milligan's back could no longer handle the pain. With Milligan's injury, McDonnell has had to prepare three new starters and shuffle in a number of guys trying to fix the problems with consistency.
The Irish have an off-week this week and will need every minute of that off-week to try to fix their problems along the offensive line.
McDonnell say his unit is going to focus on becoming consistent these next two weeks. "We have to continue to work to get better," said McDonnell. "When things aren't going well you analyze and critique every little thing that you're doing. From that standpoint, it's going back to a lot of basics, fundamentals, just everything. Focusing as much as we possibly can and this week doing the work to improve."
Technique has been the biggest concern for McDonnell. He thinks his offensive line understands their assignments but needs to finish their blocks. "I think that's the newness, the youngness. I think for the most part assignments have been decent, effort has been decent but technique things get us in trouble."
The most important thing for this young unit is to keep fighting until the whistle blows according to McDonell. "You've got to finish every single play and that's another thing we have to continually focus in on and play the game from whistle to whistle."
McDonell admits he might still be looking for answers this week and will give some new players an opportunity to see if they are up to the task. "I think bye week, that's something you look at. We've jumbled a lot already. I think that's true and the other thing is maybe settling in a little bit too. Those are all the things you get to do in the bye week but obviously this bye week, there's a lot more urgency."
"We're still geared towards Pittsburgh but with an emphasis of fundamentals" said McDonell when asked if they are going to focus on Pittsburgh this week as well.
McDonnell says he has been pleased at times with the way his unit has played. "At times, I just don't think you can be happy with where we are at right now. I just think we have to take that all as a whole and realize that we can't be satisfied with where we are at with anything. We have to continue to push and get this thing back on track."
"They've tried, I think they're definitely trying" said McDonell when asked if his unit was giving him the effort he wanted to see.
Offensive tackles and tight ends coach Mike Denbrock says Jim Molinaro has been the most consistent player so far along the offensive line. "I think Jimmy has been as consistent as anyone we've had so far this season," said Denbrock. "He's done a pretty good job with pass protection; his run blocking is pretty powerful at the point of attack."
"He's had a little bit of trouble getting a little top-heavy and getting out over his toes a little bit too much in pass protection. A lot of the things he has problems with are experience things. He's getting better every day and every week and he's going to end up being a very, very solid football player."
Starting right tackle Dan Stevenson had some problems in the Purdue game but Denbrock likes his aggressiveness. "Dan Stevenson, I think has done some good things. He needs to be a lot more consistent with his technique and his footwork. He is big, strong, powerful guy and sometimes he relies a little bit too much on that—I'd like to see him play with a little bit better technique. He's an aggressive player, we like that about him. I know he feels bad about the fact that he got out of his game a bit, committed some costly penalties that kind of hurt our offensive and kinda stopped our momentum."
The reality is that Stevenson is probably best suited to play offensive guard. Denbrock admits this but says they really have no other choice than to play Stevenson at tackle. "You don't have a lot of experience anywhere and not a lot of guys you might look at and say these guys are tackle-type bodies. We've had to shuffle our line around and more go into it of trying to get the top five guys there as opposed to having a lot of depth at tackle, a lot of depth at guard and being able to choose the best one. It's been a process and I think for the situation our football team is in right now, we have to continue to play Dan at tackle."
The Irish have very little depth at offensive tackle right now and Denbrock says they have to find a way to get some younger players some playing time or they will find themselves in the same situation next year. "There's no doubt, we need to get to the point offensively where we have enough success that some of those guys can get into the game, gain some experience, otherwise we're going to find ourselves in a very similar position a year from now."
"There are some opportunities that are continually going to happen where we need to try to work those guys into game situations. They haven't presented themselves so far but we're going to keep and eye out to try to find ways to get them as much experience as we can because we're going to need them."
The offensive line seems to understand their assignments but just haven't been able to finish their blocks. Denbrock agrees and says they will work on this the next two weeks. "I think it something that you have to continually emphasize. Sometimes with younger players, you never know which time is going to be the time where it actually clicks in their brain. There's no question that we need to play with a lot greater attitude up front. The way we go about our business has got to be a lot more aggressive. It's something we're working on a daily basis and it's something that I think we're making progress towards. Once you get to the point where you've got the assignment things down, you're in a position to cut loose a little bit more and be more aggressive."
The offensive line did have some success against Purdue in pass blocking. Many times they were able to give the quarterback a good pocket to throw from and Denbrock says that is encouraging. "You look for any light at the end of the tunnel that you can find. Hopefully, with the success that they had blocking a pretty good front from Purdue, we can build on that. It's nowhere near as consistent as we'd like it to be but it was a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we couldn't run the football and take some of the pressure off. Purdue knew we were going to throw it, everybody knew we were going to throw it and they still had a tough time getting home so I think that's a positive thing."
Running the football is the area they really need to improve in. Denbrock says they will be focusing on that for most of the week. "We've got to get our running game going. I think over the course of the next two weeks were going to spend an awful lot of time making sure that we've got a running game we can rely on more than we have."
Denbrock's tight ends have started to become a factor in the offense. He says he's been somewhat pleased with their play but they need to become more consistent on every play. "I think we've made some improvement there, I really like the play of Jared Clark in the passing game. We've been able to mix him into the running game a little more so it's not quite so obvious when we're going to throw it to him. I really like what Anthony Fasano's done. He's getting closer and closer to giving us the total package at tight end. Billy Palmer continues to work to work as hard as he possibly can and really give us some quality minutes. I think there's some good things happening there. Like the rest of our football team, we've just got to become more consistent than we have been."
Both Denbrock and McDonnell have the difficult job of solving the problems along the offensive line. This offense will have to be able to run the football to have any chance of winning games this year and they will have to protect freshman Brady Quinn from the many hits he took last week at Purdue.