Duncan Next in Line

For the past four seasons, left tackle was never an area of concern for Notre Dame. With future NFL pick Ryan Harris manning the position, Irish fans knew they had a reliable performer at what many consider the most difficult position along the offensive line. Third-year tackle Paul Duncan is hoping to ease any doubts about the future at left tackle.

Having the same guy start 45 games in a row is quite a luxury for any football team. Losing someone with the experience and talent of a player like Ryan Harris is never easy to replace. Dallas Georgia native Paul Duncan appears to be next in line to replace the popular Harris, and the transition might not be as difficult as some might think.

"Paul's an athletic guy and he's played both," Irish offensive line coach John Latina said on why the staff has chosen Duncan as Harris' replacement at left tackle. "I feel he's going in the third year of the program, so I expect him to be able to do a good with that. I really feel like he's going to be OK.

"I think he's really improving. Guy's in their third year really seem to make the most progress. As a true freshman they kind of float around, their second year they kind of get a little taste of it, and that spring and their third year they kind of get it, and that's where I think he and Michael (Turkovich) are at right now."

The 6-foot-7 295-pound junior played most of last season on the right side of the line of scrimmage, but he says switching to the left side isn't a problem for him.

"I haven't gotten a whole lot of game experience at right, either, so it's not a huge difference, left side compared to right," he said. "I really don't think there's a big difference. You've always got to work on stuff, but you just keep doing that and you get better."

Game experience has been hard to come by for any offensive lineman recently, but Duncan was usually the sixth guy in the game last season. We asked Duncan where he felt he needed to improve to earn the starting spot for next season. "Just go out there and play," he said. "I get too intense. Just going out there and playing would be the best thing."

With the departure of seniors like Harris, Dan Santucci and Bob Morton as starters along the offensive line, Duncan now is considered and old dog and a leader along the offensive line.

"It does seem weird," he said when asked about being considered an upperclassman now. "It's exciting though. Usually the third year is when you start to play your best football, so I'm really excited about that.

"I think we've worked really hard in the off season, trying to get bigger and stronger. I think it's really starting to pay off. I just feel better. I feel comfortable out there. I feel my strength is an advantage now. I'm excited about it.'

The former East Paulding high school graduate says the hard work has really started to pay off for him this spring.

"My weight hasn't gone up much, but I just feel more physical, and I'm able to handle it better," he said. "I just feel better about what I'm doing out there."

Losing so many starters along the offensive line can become problem for any team. Cohesiveness is always a term used among offensive linemen. Learning to know the strengths of weaknesses of the player next to you is a big part of playing well as a unit, but the former first-team all-state pick from Georgia says that shouldn't be a problem for the Irish next season.

"We've been around each other the whole time, and many of us young guys who weren't starting were playing at a lot of different positions, so I'm used to playing next to Mike, or I'm used to playing next to Eric or Matt," he said. "We've all kind of played with each other all last year, so we're familiar with each other. I think that will help the cohesiveness of the line. I think we're a pretty close group already."

For the first time in awhile, the offensive side could struggle in 2007 having to replace seven very productive players from the 2006 squad. Many Irish fans are already predicting a rebuilding year. While Duncan has heard the doubters, he says this team isn't buying into their predictions.

"I really don't think about it," he said when asked about those predicting an up and down season for the Irish next fall. "You can't really think about that. Every team loses people. We've just got to keep moving and working hard. If we keep playing hard, I think we'll do very well."

How has the offense progressed thus far this spring?

"I think we've been coming along great," Duncan said. I'm really excited about the offense."

Left tackles are usually considered the most athletic linemen on the team because they almost always are opposite the most athletic pass rush on the team. This possibility excites Duncan.

"You've got to," he said when asked if he's looking forward to going against the best pass rushers in the nation. "You have to want to compete and just dominate. I'm really happy to do that that, and I'm excited to do it."

Replacing a guy like Harris is never easy, but Duncan's versatility and athleticism just might make the transition a little less worrisome.

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