Line Should Shine in 2006

The Irish essentially return four starters along the offensive line in 2006. All four have considerable starting experience and should form a solid nucleus for what many anticipate will be another record-setting season. That is if they stay healthy and can find an answer at right tackle.

Ryan Harris, Dan Santucci, John Sullivan and Bob Morton have combined for well over 1,000 minutes of playing time and 91 starts—that's a lot of playing experience. It shouldn't be a surprise the Irish offensive line should be a real strength of the team if they can just find the right answer at right tackle.

There isn't much to say about Harris, Santucci, Sullivan and Morton. All four have played solid football throughout their Notre Dame career, but like anyone else, they can improve over 2005. Most importantly, I think they'd really like to improve their very average 3.59 yard-per-carry average. This is a number that really needs to improve. For comparison, USC averaged 6.44, Texas averaged 5.91 and Ohio State averaged 4.66 yards per carry last season.

I was also surprised to see Notre Dame's longest run from scrimmage was just 38 yards last season. While it does likely say something about starting halfback Darius Walker's overall speed as a running back, it also says something about line play as well.

This group allowed only 21 sacks last year, and while that's a pretty good number, I'm sure Irish head coach Charlie Weis and line coach John Latina would love to see that number quite a bit lower this season.

But I do expect these four to really shine in 2006, if for no other reason than the good old-fashioned dollar. All four likely have NFL futures, and money can be a very powerful motivator.

The question for 2006 is clearly right tackle. It only takes one player to miss an assignment and the whole thing breaks down. I think many Irish fans just assume the eventual winner at right tackle will step right and continue on the well-oiled machine. It's just not that easy.

Notre Dame certainly has options. Brian Mattes is a fifth-year senior with plenty of practice experience, but he only has a total of 37 minutes of playing experience.

Sophomores Paul Duncan and Michael Turkovich did see action in 2005, and both have around 24 minutes of playing experience, but will they have the needed strength and technique to handle the job?

In 2003, true freshman Ryan Harris became just the third player in Notre Dame history to start along the offensive line. Could the Irish find a starting right tackle in a freshman?

It's been no secret that many expect freshman Sam Young to compete for the spot, and so far I've heard very good things about Young's technique, quickness, attitude and ability. Here is a man who came in ready to compete and that could be very good news for the Irish.

In the end, I expect this to be a Paul Duncan/Sam Young battle. Mattes might be the guy if neither step up and grab the job, but I'd be surprised if one of these two didn't win the job in the end.

Despite the starting experience, the Irish are very thin when it comes to quality depth. While I do believe Duncan, Turkovich and Mattes could be quality players, none have proven themselves as of yet.

Will we see other freshmen on the field in 2006? You bet. I'm going to guess freshman center Dan Wenger will see a lot of action this season as the Irish will try to groom Sullivan's eventual replacement. Bartley Webb, Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel all were highly-rated prospects coming out of high school. So far I've heard Olsen is likely the closest out of the four to be ready for action in the fall.

The Irish should be very solid along the offensive line in 2006, but I must admit that I'm somewhat nervous about right tackle. It only takes one play and Heisman hopeful Brady Quinn could be on the sidelines.

We've seen the early returns of Irish line coach John Latina and they're very favorable. I'd be surprised if Latina didn't have a guy ready to go by August at right tackle. As the saying goes; "you're in good hands."


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