The Notre Dame offensive line has really turned the corner with these last three games. In the last three games, the Irish rushed for 280 yards (5.83 yards per carry) against Navy, 204 yards (4.0 yards per carry) against BYU, and 320 yards (6.4 yards per carry) against Stanford.
While the competition hasn't been as strong as USC, Michigan, and Florida State, it's obvious the Irish offensive line have been getting the job done at the line of scrimmage.
Mike Denbrock coaches offensive tackles and tight ends for the Irish. We asked him what has changed since the beginning of the season. "I think they've steadily improved as the year has gone along," said Denbrock of the offensive line. "I think they've gotten better and better at the little things. I think they've gotten better at recognizing defenses and what they are trying to do. Those things have been very positive. There's obviously a ton of things I wish we were better at. I like the progress we're making, but we need to continue to have the hunger that we've had the last five or six weeks."
Earlier in the year, Denbrock admitted he was worried about next year. Ryan Harris is the only experienced tackle the Irish will have heading into spring practice. Brian Mattes will likely be forced into action next season with the departure of Jim Molinaro. Mattes had never played offensive line in his carrer until now after switching from playing defensive line earlier in his career. Also, Scott Raridon had not played a down of football for the Irish until both he and Mattes saw their first action against Stanford.
Denbrock said that playing experience should help both players next year. "I'm really happy to get them out there and really give them kind of a baptism into what it's like to play in a game atmosphere, and what it's like at game speed. It's something that you can't simulate unfortunately. We try to with crowd noise, scrimmages, things like that, it's just not the same. Hopefully they can take that experience into the off-season and say ‘if I want to dominate in this type of arena, this is what I need to improve on.' I hope we can get them in again this week."
Harris has been an unbelievable surprise for the Irish this year. Denbrock is not one to gush over his players, and always sees room for improvement. He knows Harris can improve, but even Denbrock seems shocked by the play of Harris. "He has kind of adapted, as much as anything, the philosophy and the way we want to go about our business as an offensive line. I think there were signs of it on his high school tape. Not that he was just athletic, but it looked like he had a little bit of a nasty streak to him. He played with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. That is so important to being good at what you do. I couldn't be more pleased with him."
The Irish tight ends also had one of their better days blocking against Stanford. Denbrock also sees marked improvement in his tight ends. "I'm really happy with where we're headed with the tight end position. I think we've gotten to the point where we're not afraid to single those guys up on a defensive end or a linebacker. That's allowed us to do some different things with our blocking schemes in other areas and maybe help out the center or help out a guard. It allows us to game plan differently against certain defensive players or defensive looks."
The 5-6 record is not a positive for the Irish. Denbrock said he's had a difficult time dealing with the losses, but this season has been rewarding for him. "I'm so proud of them. It almost chokes me up sometimes when I think about where we were at 2-6, and how a lot of people kind of put us away. A lot of people thought this team had quit and decided not to play the rest the season. For these players to hang with the coaches, and the coaches to hang with the players, and for these kids to bring the type of effort they did every day to the practice field, that's what has allowed us to win these last three games, and hopefully a fourth. That's been the difference, no matter what people told them about how bad they were, they believed in each other and believed in what we were doing, and I think that's what's made the difference."
The Irish will return seven players who have started at one time or another along the offensive line next season. Notre Dame should have plenty of experience along the offensive line in the middle. The key to success next year will be coaching up some offensive tackles to get them ready to play. The loss of Molinaro will be felt early in the season. Hopefully Denbrock can have similar success with the next group of tackles.