Offensive Line Key to Irish Success

It's no secret the Irish are in a rebuilding mode on offense this spring. Many skill position players will need to be replaced, and the Irish have to find replacements for three starters along the offensive line from the productive 2006 unit. They key to Notre Dame's success next year might be the play at these three positions along the O-line.

The race to replace former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn hasn't been decided yet, but the winner will also inherit a young and inexperienced offensive line. While they may be a little green, the new starter will have a talented and physical front five to play behind.

"Our theme was to be more physical," said Irish offensive line coach John Latina when asked how his young unit has been progressing this spring. "That was the thing going in that we felt like we had to accomplish. I think we've gotten better in that area. I still think we have to make improvement there as a whole. I think some individuals did a nice job with that. Not everybody is going improve at the same rate, so you have to keep building and keep building depth and keep building toughness."

With an inexperienced quarterback, the best thing that can happen to the Irish this fall is to become a great running team. An effective running game would also be the best friend to the first-year starter at quarterback.

"You have to put them in a tough environment at practice," Latina said when asked how he‘s been getting the physical play out those next in line. "You have to put them in it enough times to where it becomes more second nature to them. You want it to become second nature, because as a coach, you're not going to be on the field when they play, you'll be on the sideline. You want to put them in that environment enough times where they do it on their own, hopefully, time and time again. That's what you have to do in your drill work, in your group periods and your team periods. You keep demanding that and keep expecting that, and keep that in front of their face that that's what's expected out of them."

With the departure of Irish running back Darius Walker, Notre Dame also has a stable of running backs quite different from Walker. The two most likely to play early, Travis Thomas and James Aldridge, both are a change from Walker's darting, slashing style. Both backs are much more physical and love nothing better than pounding the ball inside.

"Last year we threw the ball a lot. Last year Darius Walker was a back that ran draws really well and some of those types of plays, so that's what we emphasized. We don't have some of those players," Latina said when asked how the Irish plan to change the offense this year to compliment the talented running backs. "We just felt like for us to continue to improve, and hopefully to get to that next level, we're going to have to be more physical. We just felt like for us to continue this program going in the right direction, coach Weis identified, and our staff all agrees, that's one area that we need to keep working on and improving on.

"If you don't have real physical back, you're beating your head against the wall if that's what you're going to be. We think those kids have been very good in the backfield, very physical. We feel like we have a group of them that we can keep them fresh. We feel we have a good number of kids back there who have done well, and we can do that with our backfield, and hopefully our line will continue to improve in the physical game."

Two top juniors appear to be entrenched at the left side of the offensive line according to Latina. Paul Duncan appears to be the leading candidate at left tackle, and Mike Turkovich seems to have nailed down the left guard spot.

"He had been exposed to it enough to where I felt like he could go over there and do that," Latina said of Duncan, who has switched from his right tackle position last year to the left side this season "I had seen him enough in that environment. I felt it would be a smooth transition. We basically rotated him on both sides at different times. It's worked out OK. He's a pretty athletic kid. He's a rangy kid. He's going into his third year. I think when kids go into their third year, they either get it or they don't, and they're not going to get it. I think those kids are getting it.

"I really like the way those guys have come along on the left side. I don't think they've been happy with their playing time. I think they've worked to solve that problem. Michael is a real physical kid, and inside, you play against some bigger and more physical players. We felt that was the natural thing to do, give him an opportunity to compete in there, and he's done well.

"We've been happy with Michael's progress at left guard. He's been in the system now. He's getting it now. That's kind of a real common time frame for a lineman."

With starting center John Sullivan and right tackle Sam Young both returning, the only other position open appears to be at right guard. Three sophomores, Dan Wenger, Eric Olsen and Matt Carufel, are all battling for that spot this spring.

"Those other guys are getting better," Latina said of his talented sophomores. "They're getting a lot of reps. They're getting a lot scrimmage reps, which is obviously a key, and that will carry on in fall camp. The biggest challenge I have is how do they improve between spring game and fall camp. We can't coach them. What are they going to do to make themselves better before over the next three months before August rolls around?"

Sullivan, the old dog on the offensive line, says he's been very impressed with his young line mates so far this spring.

"It's a lot of fun," Sullivan said. "We've got to some new faces, and you've got to develop the chemistry that I had with the other guys. I played with them for a long time. It's a lot of fun working with some kids who are strong. They're trying to learn the offense. They're getting it down really well. They really want to go out there and be good football players.

"It's a group of really big guys, if you look at them and look at their size. They're big across the board. They're tall, their heavy, their strong, and it's not particularly surprising that they're physical. All you need for that to happen is you need to have the confidence to go out and play fast. I think that's one of the things we really developed so far this spring. They're not out there second-guessing themselves. As an older guy, you make sure everybody is on the same page, and make sure I take as much of the load off of them mentally as I can so they can go out and focus on the physical aspect. They're really physically talented, everybody is, so they're doing a great job. "

Both Travis Thomas and James Aldridge agree with Sullivan's assessment of the new offensive line.

"I think they've made a lot of big strides since the beginning of practice," Thomas said. "Coming in here I knew they were going to be a tough, physical group. I think they look good, and with time they're only going to get better."

"I've found some bigger holes than I thought this spring, this early anyway," Thomas said with a laugh. "I'm really pleased with that. We all have a ways to go."

"The line is making it happen," Aldridge said. "They're young, energetic and talented. I'm just reading from what they do and just hitting the hole."

"I kind of expected it," Aldridge said when asked if he was surprised to find some running lanes this spring. "I knew they were a young group, but I knew they were talented. You could tell that from the games last year. I'm extremely excited because I know I'm going to be with these guys for awhile. We're young now, just imagine us a couple of years from now."


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