Part III of our look at spring practice will look at replacing two three-year starters along the offensive line in Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir. While Notre Dame will essentially have four returning starters along the offensive line next season, replacing these two players might be a lot more difficult than most can imagine.
Who will replace Dan Stevenson?
It's quite obvious that both Dan Santucci and Bob Morton are the likely candidates. One will move from their left guard position to man the right spot most likely, but which guy is the right candidate?
To find out I called Irish Eyes expert Sean Milligan to get his thoughts on this.
"I think Bobby (Morton) will be the guy to move," Milligan said. "Bobby's played center, so he's used to going in both directions depending on the blocking scheme. He'll probably have the easiest transition to moving to the other side because he's played center and has had to move to either side as a center. He's also had more playing experience, so that should make it easier."
We also asked Milligan how difficult the transition would be moving from the left side to the right side of the line of scrimmage for either Morton or Santucci.
"I had to do it a couple of times in my career," Milligan said. "Sean Mahan got hurt and I had to play left (guard) against Texas A&M. We also had to do it during practice a bunch when guys went down just to keep the continuity amongst the line. Sometimes it's easier to just move a go over than put in his replacement. It's not an easy thing to do to switch to the other side during a game though.
"You have to switch from being in a left-hand stance to a right-hand stance or vice versus. On one side your right foot is back and on the other side your left foot is back. You have to drive out of your stance from a different side, your hand placement is different, so it can be hard to make that switch in a short period of time. But if you've got an entire spring and fall, it shouldn't be that big of a change for those guys. They should be able to get used to it."
Who will Replace LeVoir?
The battle for LeVoir's spot will likely be much more complicated, and we might not even know the answer until the end of fall camp.
Senior Brian Mattes will get the first look in spring ball. Mattes has some playing experience, but funnily enough, he actually had less playing time this season than the two freshman, Michael Turkovich and Paul Duncan, who will challenge him for the starting tackle position.
Still, Mattes has three full years of experience playing and practicing at offensive line while the freshmen only have one fall at the position.
Both Turkovich and Duncan made an immediate impact on the team in their freshmen season. Both players were inserted in the first game of their careers, Pittsburgh, and it was clearly obvious the Irish coaching staff was trying to fast-forward their learning curve as both will be counted on very heavily next season when the Irish lose a number of offensive linemen.
Once again we went to our expert, Sean Milligan, to get his thoughts on which player might surface to land the starting right tackle position in 2006.
"I think Brian Mattes will definitely get the first look," Milligan said. "He should have the strength advantage over all of these young guys, and he's watched these guys play for a long time. Getting that many reps has to help him. Plus, he knows his time is now or never, and he should be very motivated by that.
"Duncan and Turkovich have also had a year in the program. They'll get stronger this spring and summer, and they've worked with (offensive line coach John) Latina for a year, so they should have fixed a lot of their technique. These two will be fighting for the spot with Mattes, and neither one of them will want to be the last guy in their class to start, so they're going to be going after it this fall. This should help all of them get better."
The unknown at this point is if true freshman Sam Young might be able to come in and push those three for the starting position. While it's very rare for any freshman to play, Milligan says he's seen enough film, and watched enough of Young in the Army All-American game, to say he could possibly push for the starting spot in August.
"I really like what I've seen of Sam Young," Milligan said. "No one thought Ryan Harris would start and he did. I see him as having very similar abilities. He's bigger than Harris, and he's got good technique. He plays low, he gets leverage and he uses his hands well. If they don't have a clear guy by spring, it might be his job to win in the fall.
"What will happen is guys will pull (Young) aside and try to help him out, especially if they think he'll play. If they think he has a shot to play, they'll make sure he's ready because he'll be playing next to them on the line. We did that with Harris. We'd pull him aside and tell him; ‘that looks awkward, try it like this.' He'll learn more from that than anything else."
The one advantage that Young has that Harris didn't is Young will enroll in the summer and work out with the team and linemen for two months before the start of fall camp.
"That will help him a lot," Milligan said. "You learn a lot from the other linemen. They have time to work with him as well. He'll get stronger working with the strength program for a few months, and he'll also get a lot more instruction from the other linemen. That will help him a lot when fall camp comes."
Everyone expects the 2006 offense to shatter every record known to man when it comes to offense, but Notre Dame will have to find a solid replacement for both Stevenson and LeVoir. Most likely aren't worried about the right guard spot as either Morton or Santucci should be able to handle the load, but right tackle could be a problem.
Notre Dame ran often behind Stevenson and LeVoir in 2005. They'll need to find solid replacements to keep the balance in the offense and continue building on a successful running game.