Unanswered Questions at Offensive Line

Continuing on with our series of previews for spring practice, today we'll take a look at the offensive line. This group, more than any, will have to step up this spring, summer and fall in order for the Irish to have success next season.

I learned a lesson a long time ago. A good number of years ago there was a particular group of Notre Dame offensive linemen that I felt didn't perform to the level I thought they could. I believe four out of the starting five that year were leaving onto the NFL at the end of the season. I remember thinking, "thanks for the effort, but time for some new blood." I said, "how bad could the next group be considering the play of the starters that year?"

Well, I found out. The next group performed at a much lower level the following year, all due to inexperience, and some talent issues. It was then that I realized that I really didn't know more than the coaching staff, and since they're there every day coaching these players, I have to believe they have a better grasp on the situation than I. So keep that in mind. Almost always, the guy starting is first team because he's simply better than the next guy. That's almost always the situation.

I think a good number of Irish fans will have the similar attitude towards some of the current seniors who will now move onto the NFL. Yes, the Irish will have some talented players filling in these roles, but experience is almost as important as talent, especially along the offensive line.

The Irish will certainly lose a lot of experience along the offensive line. Ryan Harris, Bob Morton and Dan Santucci have started a lot of games for the Irish over the past three years. That experience will not be easy to replace.

The good news is that senior John Sullivan decided to apply for a fifth year of eligibility. Sullivan has started for the Irish the past two seasons, and should provide some stability in the middle. Hopefully some of his physical play will rub off on the young and inexperienced players who will fill in for Morton and Santucci next season.

The next question that needs to be answered is where will Sam Young play? Will he be moved to left tackle after playing right tackle last season? Is there another possibility at left tackle?

Sophomore Mike Turkovich was listed as second team behind Ryan Harris last season, but I've got to believe that Young will likely switch to left tackle, and Turkovich will then compete for the right tackle position.

Where it becomes interesting is what happens with players like Paul Duncan, who was also listed as the right tackle reserve, but usually came in to play guard when he was in the game last season.

The idea is to find your five best offensive linemen and then figure out where they might be the most effective.

Compounding problems is I hear the next best offensive lineman is center Dan Wenger, but Sullivan will likely play center in 2007. Would they move Sullivan to guard, or even Wenger? One thing is certain; Wenger's future is very bright from what I've heard.

The question becomes how do you get the five best on the field if they play the same position? My best guess, from what I've heard as far as the five best heading into spring would be Sam Young, John Sullivan, Paul Duncan, Dan Wenger and Mike Turkovich. When I say five best, I mean currently and not based on potential. Knowing this, it's possible Wenger could play guard along with Duncan, and Turkovich might end up at right tackle.

However, we've also heard very good things about the potential of Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel. Both really started to come into their own towards the end of the year. This could throw a wrench in everything if one of these two became the fifth best offensive lineman.

Let's say Olsen really shines this spring. Would that then move Duncan to right tackle and Olsen in at guard? The other big question, I think, heading into spring is can either Sullivan or Wenger play guard? It's not always the best idea to switch a center to guard.

Another possibility is the Irish might be less one offensive lineman if he switches sides of the ball to help fill needs on the defensive side. Who would be the most likely? I'd say either Olsen or Carufel as both played a lot of defense in high school. They also happen to be at least good depth for the offensive line next season if not possible starters.

Chris Stewart and Bartley Webb will also be in the mix, and both players need some time in the weight room before they'll be ready to play. Both will have plenty of time to do that this spring, summer and fall to be able to contribute or even start in 2007. They'll have to make strong progress as some talented freshmen will also report this summer pushing for playing time.

The Notre Dame offensive line will be heavily counted on in 2007. With a new starter at quarterback, running back and two new starters at wide receiver, this until will have to step up to give Notre Dame any chance of offensive success.

My guess is the Irish will try to find the five most physical players they can to start next season. Notre Dame's strength next season will be at running back, and they'll likely try to take advantage of some talented runners as to not put pressure on a young and inexperienced quarterback.

Those starting positions could be won this winter as those that make the most advances in strength might have a leg up heading into spring practices. With so many young players, true sophomores trying to earn spots, strength will likely become a factor. Hopefully strength coach Ruben Mendoza will have these guys ready to go because they'll be counted on heavily next season…..some probably before they're ready.

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