It's hard to imagine that Notre Dame actually finished ranked No. 85 in rushing offense in 2004. Notre Dame averaged just 127 yards rushing per game and just 3.3 yards per carry in 2004 despite returning four out of five starters from the 2003 squad.
The Irish also finished ranked No. 54 in passing offense—not terrible if you have a great power-running game, but the Irish clearly did not.
Watching the 2004 offensive squad, especially along the offensive line, was a display of inconsistency. One week the Irish rushed for 11 total yards and zero touchdowns against a porous BYU team, and then the next week they rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Michigan, a team that beat Notre Dame 38-0 the previous year.
To be fair to the current starters on offensive line, we're not sure what they were taught, and we certainly don't want to infer that they were lazy or weak.
The inconsistency really was mind-boggling at times last year but new Irish head coach Charlie Weis could have his finger on the pulse of the problem.
"I talked at length with the offensive line, particularly about this today; it was about playing with a defensive mentality," said Weis at his Media Day press conference. "That means be aggressive, not the one who is taking the blows, the one who is delivering the blows. So we are working on that."
The man in charge of bringing back the fight in the Fighting Irish along the offense line is John Latina. Latina has a long history of developing outstanding offensive linemen, and he comes from a coaching pedigree that all Irish fans love to hear—former Irish great Joe Moore.
"How important fundamentals are," said Latina when asked what was the most important thing that he learned from the great Joe Moore. "You can scheme all you want, and it's important to scheme, especially in football today, but it still down to how well you can execute your offense and the fundamentals of blocking and tackling."
"I knew he was the best," Latina said of his time spent with Moore at Temple. "It gave me an opportunity to sit in the same office with him, watch film, practice daily with him, and really just pick his brain. We did that for two years, and then Joe came here. I had two good years of apprenticeship with him."
Moore was known as a strict disciplinarian, and by judging from what we've seen from Latina at practice, the first-year Irish coach hasn't fallen far from that tree.
"Right now, where we are in this stage in camp, I'm liking the way we're progressing," said Latina after Sunday's practice. "We have an emphasis of being physical, and I think our kids are trying to take that type of physical practices and going to work and becoming more physical. I think that's very important to our football team. And we're going out on a daily basis and trying to do that. We've got to continue to get better at that, but they're improving in that area."
While Latina is trying to instill that killer instinct in the Irish offensive line, he also knows the value of having athletes along the offensive line.
"I think a lot of kids try to get big and strong, and that's important, and they spend a lot of time in the weight room," Latina said. "When you're going against the type of teams and the caliber of athletes we go against, defensive linemen are so fast….defensive ends, linebackers…your big, strong offensive linemen better be athletic, too. I think we try to do something every day to try to improve their athleticism, their quickness, their balance. I think that's very important."
Notre Dame returns all five offensive linemen for the 2005 season, and a sixth, Dan Santucci, is essentially a sixth starter, but after these six players the Irish lack depth. Latina says the depth at offensive line is still a work in progress.
"It's been a process," he said. "It always is. It's been a problem—probably 80-90 percent of teams in the country have that same problem. It's an on-going process. It's something we think we're getting a little bit better at. You never have as many players as you need, especially on the offensive line, and we're a little bit low on numbers.
"We're starting to get some kids that are starting to understand our scheme, starting to understand our tempo of practice and how to become more physical. I think we're going to be OK, but we've just got to make a lot of progress between now and game time."
While progress has been made so far this fall camp, Latina says he's not sure anyone is ready to play besides the six proven offensive linemen at this point.
"I don't know if there's anybody quite ready to go yet beyond that, but we're making great stride," Latina said when asked if any other players were starting to show they're ready for action. "We've been in this a week. Every day you put a new insertion in, new plays, so every day is a new day of plays. Hopefully in another 3-5 days, when we go back to these things and start honing it down and get more reps with those things, we'll see that kind of progress. I'm hoping by the end of next week we can start to see a lot of progress in the (second team) especially."
"The one good thing is we have some veteran players, and we have smart players," said Latina when asked if it was wise to try to teach players multiple positions at the same time. "That's a strength, so we have to utilize that. You can never get enough reps at a particular position, so when you're playing players in multiple positions, that's always a concern, but you still want to put the best five players out there at all times."
All the tinkering won't matter if the Irish offensive line doesn't develop the attitude Weis speaks of. However, junior defensive tackle Trevor Laws gave Irish fans plenty of hope in a recent interview with Irish Eyes.
"Oh yeah, they've got some swagger now and I don't like it," Laws said of the Irish offensive line. "They're getting after it, and we're getting after it. Last year it seemed like the defense really ruled the practices. This year we've got Weis, who's an offensive-minded coach and he drives home an attitude for the O-line. It's a battle out there every day."
The key to any good offense is the big bodies up front. Notre Dame has the luxury of experience up front, but can they get the consistent execution they'll need to be a top offensive unit? Following Weis' lead, and delivering the blows instead of taking them, would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Latina's job will get much tougher after this season with the graduation of Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir. However, Notre Dame has two freshmen offensive linemen who many think will make an early impact. Latina says it's only a matter of time before both Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich are ready to contribute for Notre Dame.
"They're learning," Latina said of his two freshmen. "That's a major transition from high school to this level at any position, and at the offensive line it probably gets magnified by 10. They're learning. There's a lot of fundamental work that they have to learn. There's a lot of mental assignments--learning our style of offense, and just the terminology of how you talk a new language. All our young players are getting better at those things. Time heals that, and you keep pressing, and they've done a great job of trying to learn those things. It's a matter of time."