Experience, Youth Mix on O-Line

Offensive line coach John Latina has the benefit of four returning veterans to help his line open up holes for Darius Walker and protect Brady Quinn. Out of the quartet of Ryan Harris, Bob Morton, Dan Santucci and John Sullivan, Santucci's 35 appearances for 370 minutes is the least among the group. Add this fact to what Latina sees as the biggest difference from last season.

"The biggest thing is confidence," Latina said. "In spring practice, we focused on a lot of fundamentals. In the summer time, we focused on getting bigger and stronger. Now, they have a chance to come back and hopefully they're more confident. The level has improved greatly."

There are a few bumps in the road to start out. For starters, Harris is out the first two weeks of camp with an undisclosed injury. He is expected back 100 percent after that duration of time. Latina is not concerned in the least with the delay in Harris's start.

"Anytime you have a veteran who is a proven player and he misses a little bit of time, you don't worry about that as much a young guy who hasn't proven himself," Latina said. "We feel Ryan will be back in a good amount of time."

Harris won't be simply sitting around those first two weeks of training camp.

"I'm going to be involved," Harris said. "I'll be taking an active role on the sidelines and during plays. I'll also be rehabbing at the same time.

"I know the offense. There isn't going to be a lot of installation new to me. As a matter of fact, I think we're condensing the playbook a little. The only thing I need to do is be in shape."

This will give another player a shot at increased reps for those two weeks at left tackle. It'll also magnify the fact that the other tackle spot on the right side is open for competition. There are a number of individuals who could capture the starting position, mainly sophomore Paul Duncan, senior Brian Mattes or freshman Sam Young. The older veterans will go to battle with the best man for the job.

"Right now, it's Brian Mattes or Paul Duncan or Mike Turkovich," Morton said. "Sam Young's name has been thrown in there. Whoever it is, I'll put my arm around them and try to get their game better. Whoever the best man at game time will play."

Harris's first hand experience in playing the tackle position will be invaluable in their learning process.

"I can help them a lot," Harris said. "I think for guys getting their first looks and getting a chance to get a look on the first team, they need to feel like there's someone in their corner, someone they can talk to. You want someone who can be there on your peer level instead of the coaching level. I think I can provide that. That's my duty right now on the team."

The payoff for a huge recruiting season for Weis and the Irish are six freshman linemen entering fall camp. Chris Stewart, the 6-5, 340-pound Spring, TX native, actually enrolled early and participated in spring ball. The other five will get their first taste of Notre Dame football on Monday. Harris can see the vast potential that this group possesses.

"I think every freshman linemen on this team will contribute," Harris said. "They're all gifted physically. All of them are determined to contribute. Some might contribute earlier than others because of circumstances, but I think they'll all contribute this year."

Latina doesn't think it'll take the freshman long to pick up the blocking schemes the offense employs.

"I don't think it's that hard," Latina said. "The biggest thing is the mental aspect as well as the physical. As an offensive lineman at this level, techniques are a little more defined and more sophisticated. We have more time than in high school to teach fundamentals."

Latina doesn't think conditioning will be a problem. Like everyone else in the program does, he praised the job that strength and conditioning coach Ruben Mendoza has done with his group. Last season at the Media Day press conference, Weis seemed surprised that every offensive lineman passed their conditioning test. This year, it's more of the same.

"I am a big fan of our strength and conditioning coach," Latina said. "I've been with him for 10 years. He's as good as there is. He's done a great job with our whole football team. I think our young linemen have really improved because of him."

The unit is not trying to rest on their experience or last season's success. A 9-3 record in 2005 has been deemed not good enough by Weis and the staff. Win every game, that's the goal. It's a philosophy that is shared by the offensive line.

"We worked real hard to get where we got last year so I think it taught us that hard work will get results," Sullivan said. "I think what we've done this year to try to get over the hump is to work even harder. That's all you can do."

"You come to Notre Dame to win every game," Santucci said. "That's been our goal. This year we're going to get better."

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