Latina Still Sees Room for Improvement

The Notre Dame offensive line should be a solid strength of the 2006 team. The Irish return essentially four starters along the offensive line and they combine for an impressive 91 starts in their career. While the experience is nice, offensive line coach John Latina is far from satisfied.

There aren't many jobs open for competition along the offensive line this fall, but line coach John Latina says there's still room for improvement.

"You've got to keep grounding them," Latina said when asked how he tries to improve an already established and successful offensive line. "You've got to constantly point out ways they can get better.

"No matter how good you are, you have some weaknesses and you try to stress those weaknesses to those kids and put them into situations to improve those things. Every player has a weakness, and I can assure you ours do too. You just try to focus on the weaknesses to eliminate those as weaknesses."

The lone position up for grabs this fall is right tackle. Fifth-year senior Brian Mattes is battling true freshman Sam Young for the position. The Irish finally are starting to develop some competition at various positions and Latina likes that idea.

"Competition is the best thing at any position, especially on the offensive line," he said. "When you have competition in line positions; that's really, really important. I didn't think we had that last year.

"We have it more this year, but its competition with a lot of young guys. You wish, hopefully we can get to, there's competition between juniors and seniors and then young guys are competing with young guys to be twos (second team). That's when it becomes really good."

And Latina says there's definitely competition for the right tackle spot and he likes what he has in both players at the position.

"He's going into his fifth year. He's been in our system," Latina said of Mattes. "He's played all four positions on the line other than center. That means it gives you some versatility. I think his greatest asset is being able to play multiple positions for us."

"Obviously when we recruited him we new he was a very talented player, but you just never know how a freshman is going to transition to his first year in college," Latina said of Young. "We do a lot of things on offense, and it's been remarkable with all our young kids, to me it's been remarkable how they've been able to learn it and attempt to do it on the field.

It's still early in camp, and they've had about a week under their belt. We've threw a lot of offense on them against a lot of different defensive looks. I think they're doing a good job of learning the concepts and learning their responsibilities."

Young has been playing left tackle all camp with the absence of returning starter Ryan Harris. The Coral Springs, Fla. native will now switch to right tackle now that Harris is scheduled to return during tomorrow's practice.

"Normally right tackle, especially for a naturally right-handed kid, right tackle is a little bit more comfortable," said Latina when asked what challenges Young might face switching to the other side of the offensive line. "I'm not going to say easier, but a little bit more comfortable than left tackle. When that happens, hopefully he'll feel a little more comfortable….a little more at ease being right-handed."

But it's not just Young that has Latina excited. He says he's pleased with all the freshmen so far in camp.

"Initially, I think this is a real talented group," he said. "It's how well they develop….that's the key. No matter how good they are when they come here, they're never quite good enough.

"It's how well they develop in the weight room; how well they develop on the football field, and how they well they adjust to college life itself. Hopefully all of those things will happen. I feel good about that. Good enough to know that if they have great work ethic, if they really commit themselves to being really good, they should be a good group."

They'll need to be good because the Irish will definitely lose at least three out of the four returning starters along the offense line next season, and many of these young freshmen will be counted on in 2007.

"There's good and bad in all things," Latina said when reminded of that fact. "The bad is the experience and the good is the energy, the enthusiasm and the excitement the young players bring. You get them for a long time. Hopefully now they'll continue to get better.

"I've had group before where you had to play a lot of young kids and you go through a little growing pains, and all of the sudden they become juniors and seniors and they have 30 starts under their belt and they become pretty good, and they still have another year after that. I think they're going to be OK."

Considering the fact that many of these freshmen will be counted on next season, we asked Latina if he felt a pressure to get some of these young players some experience this season so they'll be ready for action in 2007.

"As a position coach, you kind of worry about that, but then you always have to weigh how much they get to play," he said. "Does that warrant a whole year? There's a lot that goes into that decision.

"You don't want to play a guy just to play (him). You'd like to have him play meaningful snaps. Clean up snaps, where you're not really running your offense, I don't know how meaningful those are. If they can get meaningful snaps, that's very beneficial for them the following year."

One thing we've noticed recently has been the one-on-one battles Latina has his players engage in during the individual drills we're allowed to see. We've been impressed with the effort and toughness of the young players so far in these drills. Latina believes they're important in the transformation of a high school player to a solid college offensive lineman.

"That's one of the things that makes it hard for a young lineman to play, because let's face it, they're going against guys that are two, three, four years older than them that have been in college systems and college weight rooms," he said. "That's one of the things we're trying to do—try to get them a little more physical every day. I try to test them every day in that aspect."

The Irish offensive should be very solid in 2006 providing the Irish can find an answer at right tackle. We've heard freshman Sam Young was moved to right tackle today. We assume that was in anticipation of Ryan Harris returning to the practice field tomorrow.

If true, that might be a sign that Sam Young is much closer to starting against Georgia Tech than many of us had anticipated. But after watching Young yesterday, it doesn't surprise us a bit.

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