"They're pretty big shoes to fill," Wenger said. "But you know I'm up to the challenge."
Dan Wenger is excited to get back to playing center, a position he played for three years in high school before coming to Notre Dame. Wenger says he feels much more comfortable at center than at guard, the position he started out at in 2007. Wenger started the first three games of last season at guard and spent time at center during the season. When Sullivan went down with a knee injury at the end of the season, Wenger filled in admirably as the starting center.
"It felt good just getting back into playing center again," Wenger said. "So just to get back in the mix playing center again, feeling comfortable, was important."
Wenger also said that having Sullivan, a future NFL lineman, watching over and advising him helped him progress as a center.
Just seeing time on the field last season was an improvement for Wenger, who spent his freshman year on the scout team after an arm injury took him out for most of the year. Wenger said that it was difficult not playing, but that his time on the scout team was ultimately a good experience for him.
"I took it in stride," Wenger said. "I mean it hurt, but the only thing I could do was work on getting better and going down to scout team and playing against guys like Derek Landri and Trevor Laws. I think it made a big difference about how I developed as a player."
Wenger is still playing with a brace on his arm this spring, but said it is only protective and will be gone in the fall.
One area Wenger knows will be important at his new position will be his leadership role on the line. In addition to making sure Jimmy Clausen gets a good snap on every play, Wenger will have to identify blitzes and organize the offensive line in order to give Clausen the best protection or give the running back the biggest holes.
"I'm the anchor of the line," Wenger said. "I've got to make sure that I'm on top of everything. I've got to know what everyone's doing next to me and just understand what my offensive line is planning on doing a certain play and just understanding everything and thinking what they're thinking and knowing them inside and out."
Offensive line coach John Latina is confident in Wenger's ability to step into that leadership position.
"I expect him to be a vocal leader," Latina said. "He's an energetic kid; he works hard. He's a smart kid like Sully was. I expect him to be a really, really good player for us and a good leader."
Wenger said that his offseason preparation for his new role involved "just working hard and trying to understand the whole aspect of the offense and not just learning your own position."
The chemistry Wenger will have to develop should come easily with at least one of his linemates. He and starting right tackle Sam Young have been playing together for six years, dating back to their freshman year of high school at St. Thomas Aquinas in Coral Springs, Fla. Wenger says that that kind of experience playing with someone is invaluable, especially at the offensive line position.
"It's one of those things where on the field we know exactly what each other is doing," Wenger said. "It's good to feel that you have that comfort thing, understanding someone and knowing what he's going to do."
Wenger said that the unit as a whole has had time to gel over the offseason and the familiarity will serve them well in 2008.
"With a divided offensive line you definitely won't win games," Wenger said. "I think we've got a great core of guys and I think that we're going to do well this season."
Young, Wenger, and the rest of the offensive line look to rebound from a disastrous 3-9 campaign during which they were pointed to as an area of particular weakness for the Irish. Wenger was unsure as to what exactly caused the struggles for the line, but said that the team as a whole is just trying to put last season behind them.
"It wasn't a fun experience," Wenger said. "But unfortunately it's something we had to go through and we've got a bad taste in our mouths now. I think with the work ethic we're putting in [during] the offseason and [in the spring] that we're heading back on the right track."
The motivation to not go 3-9 again, Wenger said, has pushed the team, and the offensive line in particular, during the offseason to improve and make this season more successful.
"All you hear about is everyone making jokes around campus about how we're 3-9 or how disappointing our season was," Wenger said. "You know, that's always in the back of your head."
Head coach Charlie Weis is confident, based on the character he sees in his linemen, that the unit is ready to bounce back and prove skeptics wrong in 2008.
"When you get punched in the face you got two choices. You can go down or you can punch back," Weis said of the unit's struggles last season. "I think that the signs I've seen at this point right now is they're prepared to punch back."
Wenger's punch will have a little extra weight behind it, as he put on an additional 20 pounds over the winter, raising his playing weight to 300 lbs. Wenger said being able to play at that weight will help him a great deal next season.
"I think I got a lot stronger this offseason," Wenger said. "With that extra weight behind me, being able to still move with it is going to be another advantage to my playing."
Wenger said that Weis' increased presence around during winter conditioning was also a motivating factor for him and other players.
"It's one of those things where you're not as scared of him so much any more," Wenger said. "You know, the head coach is there so it kind of pushes you a little bit more to work harder."
While the rest of the team was invited to dinner at Weis' house over the winter, the head coach treated the offensive and defensive lines to dinner at Bruno's, a local pizzeria.
"He didn't want all the big guys crowding his house," Wenger said with a laugh.
Wenger said that while he's listed on the depth chart as the starting center, he doesn't consider himself top guy at that position, necessarily, and expects to be challenged by senior Thomas Bemenderfer.
"I know there's a lot of work to be done," Wenger said. "I'm just looking to get better right now and move forward with this team."
Part of that means moving forward with Sullivan, but Wenger isn't looking at the past, and is ready to be the man at center for the Irish in '08.
"I learned a lot from [Sullivan] in the past and all I can do is go from that and just keep learning from coach Latina and hoping that it all falls into place."
A New Face at Center
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