Time To Do Our Job

Ability? Check. Experience? Check. Attitude? Check. Performance? Time will tell, but Chris Stewart says we'll see a much better offensive line this fall. "We're the guys as a unit who are going to have a big impact on this team," Stewart said after practice on Wednesday. "As the spring has progressed, you see guys dealing with that in a positive way.

"This all lies in our hands," he continued. "We have a great bunch of guys on the offensive line who all realize that it's time to play. There's no question about it anymore. It's time for us to do our job."

Stewart wasn't always so certain of his vital role on the team. He left the team for a few days last fall to consider his alternatives. Offensive line coach John Latina said, "I felt like he was a little impatient. Here's a young guy who was in our program the first year and we moved him to defense, so he missed a lot of time (on the offensive line).

"Then when he came back to offense he was behind which was not his fault, not anybody's fault; but he missed the whole spring going into his second year. I think he was kind of frustrated with himself and maybe some other things too. Bottom line is he had to soul search a little bit. That's what young players do."

Stewart hadn't found his role. "When I think about my first year and a half here, it was always a learning experience," he said. "Everything was so new. I can't begin to describe it. College not high school, dropping weight, new system, cold, snow… Things weren't working out. We were losing. All of that stuff was a factor.

"It was one of those times in life when you're at a crossroads and you wonder which way to go. Whichever way you go determines you future. I had a chance to be with my family for a little while and talk with them. My family is my biggest influence."

Within days, Stewart decided to return… with a vengeance.

"My mind was at ease then," Stewart said. Once I got back, there was no question about where I'm supposed to be and how I fit in. I know I'm supposed to be here. This is the right fit for me. Now it's all about being the best I can be at Notre Dame."

"He came back with a better attitude, worked harder, and positioned himself to get some playing time," said Latina. "He's a completely different kid now.

"First and foremost, he's developed a passion. I see him around here studying, watching tape. An offensive lineman really has to be a student of the game. I see him coming in and doing those things which tells you it's important to him, tells you his attitude's right, and tells you that he cares about improving. Instead of just coming out there to practice, he's coming out to practice more prepared. That's the whole key."

Playing time was earned, and the experience was invaluable; but Stewart's and the offensive line's performance was inconsistent.

"When you're going out there trying to analyze everything, it's hard to be explosive and confident because everything happens to them instantly," said Latina. "It's all right there right now. It's not ten yards down the field with time to see and react. That's where experience and learning how to play offensive line comes into play."

Experience teaches young men what they can do, but it also shows them how wide the gap between performance and expectations is.

"The thing I realized is that I have a lot of work to do," Stewart said. "I really have to hunch down and go to work. The day that last game ended, the season was over. We all had to improve."

The next step was winter conditioning. When he first got to Notre Dame, Stewart's focus was losing weight; but his focus has changed. "I've gained the strength back that I lost from dropping the weight," he said. "It's not getting to the point where I'll be okay anymore. It's getting to the point where there's no question in the third or fourth quarter that I'm ready to go. The question now is whether that defender ready for what I'm going to give him. Weight's been an issue long enough. Now the issue is Xs and Os."

Xs and Os and fundamentals. No matter how big and strong he is, leverage is the key to a lineman's success. He has to be a technician.

Asked about the difference he has seen in Stewart this spring, Robert Hughes didn't hesitate. "His technique and fundamentals are much improved."

Latina says Stewart has become his own greatest critic. "He's always asking questions. To me, asking questions and wanting to know answers means he's the type of athlete you want to be around."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Haywood likes what he's seen from Stewart and his line mates. "The offensive line as a unit is really coming off the ball," he said. "They're playing with great pad level and finishing plays. They're starting to come together and play as a team, understanding the individual strengths and weaknesses that are playing along side of them. They're developing really nicely as a unit."

The more physical approach to spring practices has helped, according to Stewart. "Competition has been good, real good," he said with a smile. "That's part of the reason spring has been flying by. When everything gets cranked up and the competition gets rolling, that's when football is not a job. That's when football becomes fun."

For a maturing offensive line, the fun is just beginning.

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