The Value of Experience

Offensive tackles and tight ends coach Mike Denbrock is in his third season at Notre Dame coaching the corners of the offensive front. With so much talent at tight end, and little experience at offensive tackle, Denbrock has had a busy fall camp searching for answers. Irish Eyes spoke with Denbrock to find out if the answers have started to become clear.

The Irish offensive line had their ups and downs in 2003. Inexperience along the offensive line hamstrung the Irish offense many times during the '03. Denbrock says the results sent the Irish coaching staff soul-searching in the winter months.

"You live through a season like we lived through last year and I think you're not taking the responsibility serious enough unless you sit down and analyze everything you're doing, go over and check and recheck and define every little thing that you're doing and how you're doing it," Denbrock said.

"We spent a great deal of time in the off-season making sure we were ready for the players in spring ball and to make sure that was going to carry over in the summer and fall. I really believe that we're ready to roll."

When senior guard Sean Milligan went down early in fall camp last season, Denbrock and fellow offensive line coach John McDonell were faced with starting five offensive linemen with just four starts under their belt collectively.

"We knew we were inexperienced," Denbrock said of his line's greenness in '03. "We knew we were going to take some lumps. We knew we had some guys that were going to make the transition. You can show them over and over in practice, but it has no comparison to what happens in a game. That experience alone has equipped our guy to be better prepared for this season.

"We hadn't quite learned everything you need to learn technique wise and I think we're a lot further along in that area. Let's just say it's a lot bright picture than it was at this time last year."

Denbrock feels that the picture is a lot brighter across the board for the Irish in 2004.

"I think the best thing about fall camp this year is it's such a much more competitive situation than it's been at any time since we've been here," he said. "That's going to lead to good things."

The move of Ryan Harris to left tackle from right tackle has pushed former left guard Mark LeVoir to a spot on the outside at right tackle. LeVoir moved to left guard last season after playing tackle most of his career at Notre Dame. Denbrock says the move of both players is starting to pay dividends.

"I think Mark is doing some very good things," Denbrock said of LeVoir. "He was kind of little bit behind because of missing so much spring football with his elbow injury. He's fully healed and starting to getting up to speed with the way he plays the game. I've very encouraged by what he's done so far."

After LeVoir and Harris, the Irish are woefully thin at offensive tackle. Juniors Scott Raridon and Brian Mattes are battling for the next slot at tackle. Neither player has much playing experience.

"It hasn't been answered yet," Denbrock said when asked which player would be the next in line in case of injury. "Scott Raridon has improved himself as much as anyone on our football team. He continues to get better and he's got a lot of learning and growing to day.

"Brian Mattes has made some steps early on in fall camp. I just hope that transition and the experience he's gaining continues and he continues to get better and better."

Denbrock has two freshmen that are also lining up at tackle this fall. Denbrock believes both players have a lot of potential, but we shouldn't expect either to have the same impact Ryan Harris did last season.

"I think they're going to be really good football players," said Denbrock of freshman tackles John Kadous and Chauncey Incarnato. "I think they're both really green right now. If you compare them to where Ryan Harris was a year ago, they'd be a little bit behind that. I think they'll need a year to mature and get used to how we do things. They both have very good ability to play at this level.

"Right now Chauncey's playing on the right side and John is playing on the left. I think they're pretty versatile. I wouldn't necessarily pigeonhole one as a left tackle and one as a right tackle. I think they can both give us quality time at either spot."

One position most Irish fans don't worry about is left tackle. Ryan Harris impressed more than just the Irish fans with his unlikely freshman season.

"I was surprised by how effective he was," Denbrock said of Harris' freshman season. "I knew from the practice time that I had with him that he was a very competitive young man, that he took a great deal of pride in the way he played the game. That really came out even more when we put him in a game situation.

" He's very athletic, he's a really smart football player and he picks things up really quickly. He also plays with a motor that never quits running. I call him wise beyond his years. He really played unlike a true freshman would play.

"I think potentially, he's loaded with it. I think he'll be very, very good. I think the thing that I like the most about him so far this season is that he's put the same amount of effort and work into getting better this year than he did last year. He's not resting on anything that happened last year or happy with where he's at. He's got a lot of things that he needs to improve on, too. He's working really hard to get better."

The tight end position is another position Irish fans don't worry about. The Irish have more talented depth than we can ever remember at tight end with six quality targets. Denbrock believes all of them can contribute in '04.

"All those guys can help us," Denbrock said of his tight ends. "Utilizing those guys is something we've worked very hard at in the off-season and they've worked very hard at in spring ball and during the summer.

"It's going to sort itself out a little. I think there are some guys that are starting to step up. I'm not ready to name anyone specifically. I think there's some real good competition there and that's a good thing."

One area the tight ends had struggled was with run blocking. Denbrock says he's seen a great deal of improvement in the run blocking out of his tight ends.

"I really like that they've taken some pride to get better in that area," Denbrock said. "There's a lot of guys who can run down the field and catch the football. It takes a unique individual to be good at both. I think we've got some guys who're getting better in all areas."

The tight end position should play a large role in the '04 offense. We expect to see all of them get some playing time this fall. The tackle position should be an area of concern for Denbrock, however. If something happens to either Harris or LeVoir, the Irish will once again be in a bad position. One cannot discount the value of experience—especially at offensive tackle. Top Stories