Help Wanted: Offensive LineWhen you look at the Notre Dame depth chart, it boggles the mind at the lack of depth along the offensive line. That's no secret. The subject has been discussed and it will be discussed throughout the 2005 season and beyond. It's certain that offensive line coach John Latina will earn his pay this year and the next. The upside to the situation is that the offensive linemen will get more reps during practice, so they should be well schooled. The downside is that even if there are no injuries along the offensive line, which is a rarity, the starters will probably suffer from fatigue by November. Here's a look at the senior offensive linemen; a group that needs to step up and meet the challenge this season.
Bob Morton: Morton has started 22 games and he's played 576 minutes at both center and guard. He is eligible for a fifth year. Morton was Scout.com's No. 8 rated offensive lineman, 2nd team USA Today All-American, and a U.S. Army All-American. Morton was ranked as the top center prospect by most recruiting services in 2002. After sitting out his freshman year, in 2003 Morton took over at center for NFL bound Jeff Faine. While Bob struggled a little, his overall performance was very solid considering his age and experience. In 2004 expectations were high; although Morton was being moved to left guard to make room for the up and coming John Sullivan. Bob had 11 games of experience and he showed up to fall camp in much better shape than he had been during the previous two seasons. Unfortunately, Morton did struggle at times making the switch from center to guard. At times he would maul the defender, but he didn't do it often enough. He's a bullish type offensive lineman. He's smart and he gives you everything he has. Bob needs to improve his consistency and continue to add upper body strength. He needs to fire off the ball and smack someone on every play. He should come out of fall camp as the No.1 left guard, but Dan Santucci will push him throughout the season. We're anxious to see Bob come back in the fall after another summer of conditioning. I think he's the type of player that will respond well to coach Latina.
Dan Santucci: Dan played 86 minutes along the offensive line in 2004. He is eligible for a fifth year of playing time. Santucci came to Notre Dame with little fanfare, but all this Chicago product has done since he threw on a gold helmet is battle tooth and nail. His first two seasons were spent on the defensive line, and then he moved to the offensive line in the spring of 2004. During his first year on the offensive line, he fought his way into the lineup and earned a couple series a game at left guard. Dan received his first start in the Insight.com Bowl. He's a throwback type player - a lunch pail guy. He is very active as an offensive lineman. He's aggressive—sometimes too aggressive--and that can cause him to get out of position. Dan plays through the whistle and he chases the play downfield looking to pick up an extra block. I expect Bob Morton and Dan Stevenson to retain their starting positions, but I do expect Santucci to press for playing time somewhere. He might not be the most talented or most gifted player on the field, but he sure is fun to watch on the practice field. Charlie Weis and coach Latina will like this kid a bunch.
James Bonelli: James is eligible for a fifth year of playing time. James was Scout.com's #26 rated offensive lineman and U.S. Army All-American. USC recruited Bonelli heavily and they consider this a fairly big recruiting loss. So far James has struggled to establish himself on the depth chart. When I saw him at the beginning of the 2003 season, I thought he looked to be in great physical shape, and it appeared that he was positioning himself for playing time. Then in 2004, he simply didn't progress to the next level. He's got good size and moves well for an offensive lineman, but he struggles to consistently dominate. He needs to bring an attitude to the field. In three seasons he has played sparingly, so this is a make or break year for James. There are only three offensive guards with experience on the squad so the coaching staff is going to be looking for a fourth guard to step in a take some minutes.
Brian Mattes: Brian is eligible for a fifth year. Mattes was Scout.com's No.11 rated tight end and an U.S. Army All-American. Notre Dame recruited him as a defensive end, and he played there his freshman year. In 2003 he moved to tackle where he has seen limited results. There is no doubt about it, this is a key year for Brian. I doubt that he'll be able to pass either Ryan Harris or Mark LeVoir at either of the tackle spots, but he does have the opportunity to impress the new coaching staff. If he can earn some meaningful minutes at tackle this season, and solidify himself as the No.2 right tackle, he would have a leg up on replacing the graduating Mark LeVoir. I though Mattes was on the verge of becoming a player last year. He wasn't quite at the level of Harris or LeVoir, but you could see he had potential. I think Brian was still learning to be an offensive lineman, and he was still adjusting to the massive weight gain he went through. I expect Brian to solidify himself as a viable option at tackle this season. I don't expect him to grab a starting position, but I do believe better days are ahead for Mattes.
Scott Raridon: Raridon is eligible for a fifth year of playing time. He was Scout.com's 87th rated offensive lineman, Gatorade Player of the Year in Iowa (2001), and he played in the U.S. Army All-American game. Scott has played several positions on the offensive line, but most of his time has come at offensive tackle. Irish Eye's Brian Smith recently reported that Scott will move to center for the 2005 season, where he'll likely back up John Sullivan. It will be an interesting move. Raridon has been snapping for field goals and extra points, but it's fairly late in the game to take on a completely new position, and given his competition for minutes, it's unlikely that he'll see much playing time. There certainly is a need for a player to emerge as a back-up at center, but if something did happen to Sullivan, Bob Morton would likely shift down with Santucci taking left guard.
This group will be interesting to watch this season. Notre Dame needs, absolutely needs three or four of these guys to step up there level of performance. There aren't a lot of offensive linemen on the roster so these guys will get a lot of extra snaps in practice. Hopefully the extra work pays off.
Next we'll look at all the senior defensive players.