In the not too distant past, many Irish fans said Notre Dame did not have the talent to compete with the so-called big-time programs. This Irish team is proving this is not the case. What has become very apparent is that Irish head coach Charlie Weis and his staff have taken this so-called less talented group of players and taught them and continue to teach them the basics and fundamentals of winning football.
The Irish offensive line is a prime example of how good coaching/teaching can take veteran players who did not perform well as a unit and turn them into a cohesive and winning unit. Offensive line coach John Latina is primarily responsible for the improvement of this group, and like all good teachers, he expects much more from his students. Coach Latina shared some thoughts about the offensive line during an interview session this week.
"We've gotta be more physical. I think that is the biggest problem area we have to improve upon up front," he said. "It's a daily ritual we have to go through and practice that way, and hopefully get a little better in the games because it is becoming second nature to you. It's an ongoing process, and I think we have made some strides, but not nearly enough as to where I want it to be or need it to be.
"In the world of football today you throw the ball so much it's not as important as it was 10 years ago, but I still believe in old-fashioned football and I think the game is a physical game, and I want our guys to play physical. I constantly try to put that in front of them by talking about it as well as drilling it that way so it will enable them to become more physical."
The importance of repeating and focusing on fundamentals, techniques and conditioning are mainstays of Latina's daily lesson plans. He wants his guys to be athletic linemen.
"When you play against really good defensive players who are powerful and quick, you have to be powerful and quick as well," Coach Latina stated. "And I can remember our first day of practice doing bag drills and foot drills, how awful it looked, I mean literally awful. Now our kids go through it and they have improved in those areas. /P>
"It's just like being physical, if you do it on a daily basis and you emphasize it, you may never get great at it, but you're going to improve. And that's an ongoing process and that's why I try to do it on a daily basis. Because I think it's very important for those kids to be more athletic; to be able to move their feet quicker, and be able to do it so often that it becomes second nature. That is the same thing we are trying to accomplish in the physical aspect of the game.
"I think a lot of kids like to play defense, especially in their high school years. You like to have offensive linemen with defensive mentality. They play physical and very aggressive, but yet to be able to control their body and be able to pass-protect as well. Sometimes that's at both ends of the spectrum, but that's what we work toward - to be good pass blockers and good run blockers. That's what you constantly strive to get to."
The strides and improvements this offensive line are making didn't just happen overnight, but when it did start to click, so did the entire Irish offense which has rolled up 3,449 yards in seven games. Latina said he quickly recognized the potential of the line.
"I think by the end of fall camp, I started to see some noticeable improvement and I expected to see that," Latina said. "We had a lot of days in camp, and these kids had played together for a long time but had to learn a new system. So once they felt very comfortable with the new system, I thought they would start to come together and play as a unit very well. Fall camp was probably the turning point.
"Obviously, we have been efficient. I think as our line continues to improve, we will continue to get better as an offense. Obviously, we are throwing it pretty well and catching it pretty well, but we'd like for our running game to improve and be more balanced, and be able to dictate what we want to do opposed to what we have to do."
Much of the success of the O-line this season is related to the ability of the players to perform at more than one position, but the play of the back-ups and younger players is encouraging to the Irish line coach as well.
"I think everybody has made strides," Latina said. "I think our young guys are continuously improving. Having an open week gives us a chance to focus on them even more. Hopefully, we'll see more improvement from them. You're never happy because you want them to be ready right now, but they are making strides and making progress."
There is always at least one player on each unit that is an emotional leader whether it is offense, defense, or special teams. The emotional leader of the offensive line might surprise a lot of people.
"Hopefully, it's me. Obviously, it's my job and you like it to be the players, but you know these players had to go through a change, and they had to go through a new system, and their focus was on those things," Latina said. "So I felt it was my responsibility, especially this first year, to implement a new system and a new offense and a new way of doing things."
It is important for the Irish to have a successful recruiting year and Coach Latina said the bye week is the ideal time for him and the other coaches to visit with recruits around the country.
"Yes, we will do some recruiting this week," Latina said when asked if he'll be doing some recruiting this weekend. "My responsibility is the entire state of Pennsylvania and New Jersey."