Nobody understands better than a halfback. Junior running back James Aldridge said, "You run a play, run a play, run a play… once you get into the drive, you know you can trust your linemen. You know you can make this cut. You know it's going to be there."
Left tackle Paul Duncan saw that cohesion in the veterans on the line when he was an underclassman. "It's a great opportunity to sit back and learn from them," Duncan said. "They were productive. They were successful, so you try to learn from them and follow them."
Now Duncan and classmate Michael Turkovich are the seniors. Duncan takes his leadership responsibilities seriously, but he's more concerned about the unit's cohesion than he is about individual personalities. "I wouldn't say there's one leader in the group," said Duncan. "We're all close in age and we gel off each other."
Offensive line coach John Latina agreed. "Last year we had a fifth year guy and a bunch of young guys, so we had a real defined leader," he said. "This year we have a bunch of guys all in the same boat. They feed off of one another. When you have five or six guys feeding off one another, that's a good thing."
Duncan knew last season was full of blown assignments, and he promised fewer breakdowns this year. "Everybody's got experience. Everybody knows what they're doing. I feel totally comfortable," he said.
You see, it's simple math.
"Bigger, faster, and stronger" has been a common theme among the Notre Dame football players this spring. Duncan reminds us that there is more to the equation. It starts with attitude. "It's more attitude," he said after practice on Wednesday. "We knew where we had to be. It's our chance to show it."
Irish head coach Charlie Weis has seen a difference.
"I know one thing," Weis said. "They're trying to be physical. Every guy you talk to will say the same thing, that they're trying to be physical. We've banged them pretty good here. Saturday, Monday, today… There's a lot of sore puppies."
Duncan likes the more physical practices. "When you see one guy hit somebody hard, you get jacked up," Duncan said. "You congratulate him, jump around, and horse around. Then the next play you're ready to go. We feed off each other."
Latina added experience to the equation. He likes how it has helped so far this spring. "I've been pleased with progress," he said. "For the first time in their career last year, they got to play a lot of football. The only way you get better is to go out there and play. Then you have a chance from that point on to get better. We're starting to see some of that."
Duncan agrees that experience helps. "I'm going to take that experience from playing and try to get better this year. Hopefully the game will slow down even more."
Fundamentals are also a critical part of the equation, and they improve because of attitude and experience. "It's not like riding a bicycle," Latina said. "Every day you have to work on fundamentals. So many things happen to an offensive lineman, so many things change for an offensive lineman that you have to do it over and over again. You can never do it enough."
A good offensive lineman is a technician.
"Anything you do in life, you might have the big picture; but to get better you have to focus on the little things," said Duncan. "I work on fundamentals every day, every practice. No matter where you are at the stage of play, you have to improve."
The next factor is consistency.
"What you have to do to be a good and solid offensive lineman is show consistency," said Latina. "You could see spurts throughout last year. That's what I'm starting to see more and more. There's no substitute for reliability and consistency."
The last factor is trust. The linemen need to know that everyone knows his assignment and will carry it out. The Notre Dame line is taking that test this spring thanks to the defense's emphasis on blitzing, and Duncan loves it. "It's just great. You want to practice against the best, so bring it," he said. "It's aggressive. It's intense. There's a lot of competition out there."
The linemen are determined to put last year behind them, and their common commitment has drawn them together. "We're as close as can be," Duncan said. "This is the closest offensive line I've ever played with, including high school."
Bigger + Faster + Stronger + Attitude + Experience + Fundamentals + Consistency + Trust = Cohesion. Duncan knows that the equal sign must be removed if one of the factors is missing. "You have to push yourself to get better at everything," he said.
If it all adds up, Irish fans will be happy next fall.