The Irish scoring improved over eight points from 16.4 to 24.7. The Irish run game improved over thirty yards per game. The pass offense improved almost eighty yards per game. The Irish total offense improved over 100 yards per game. All are big leaps for a college football team, there is no doubt about that. Having said that, the overall production of the Irish offensive line was solid at best, average for most of the season, and still poor at other times. It was a mixed bag with highs, lows, and a whole lot of inconsistency.
Those statistics still don't scream "PRODUCTIVE" when you really break them down. The 30 point jump in rushing got the Irish barely above 100 yards a game. When you consider they had 2 games of over 200 yards, the fact they averaged just over 100 is not good at all. The passing offense was significantly better, and a big reason for that was the fact that in 2008 the quarterbacks were only sacked 22 times, as opposed to the whopping 58 given up in one less game in 2007. That's a huge improvement. Almost half (10) of those sacks came in only three games against Michigan State, North Carolina, and Southern Cal. Part of the reason for the jump was the fact the Irish didn't play many teams with outstanding pass rushers or teams with great pass rushing statistics. But the biggest improvement has to go to the players and their coach, John Latina. In 2007 a bunch of sacks were the result of blown assignments, poor mental adjustments, and just awful technique. The technique got a little bit better but it was obvious the linemen were much more prepared to execute their assignments at a much higher level during the 2008 season.
The excuses used to explain away the poor 2007 season were no longer applicable in 2008. Anyone using a lack of experience to explain the results of the 2008 season is plain wrong. In 2008 the Irish returned five players with starting experience including Sam Young, who was in his third year as a starter. Mike Turkovich was in a new position (left tackle) but started all 12 games the previous season and played in 17 games during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Eric Olsen played in 11 games as a sophomore in 2007, started the final six, and also played in eight games as a freshman. Dan Wenger started five games during the 2007 season and Chris Stewart played six games during the 2007 season and by the end of the season had earned himself quite a bit of playing time. While not a unit with massive amounts of experience, there was plenty of experience in this unit. Lack of talent is also not an excuse anymore. Each of the above mentioned players were 4 star players coming out of high school, with 5 star Sam Young being the exception. Also, each of those players during his time at Notre Dame has shown flashes of the talent I expected from them. So lack of talent is not an issue.
So what was the problem? I'll get to that, but first lets go through and breakdown the 2008 season.
When doing breakdowns of the games there were three things that I constantly harped on with the Irish offensive line involving the run game, or lack thereof. First of all I don't care how big, strong, and athletic you are, if you are getting beat off the snap you won't be as successful and effective as you can be. This was an issue all season long. It always seemed the Irish opponents read the snap better than the Irish linemen, who should have known what the snap count was. Part of the issue was a lack of creativity by the quarterback with the snap count, but that is only a small part of the problem. The Irish players were simply not quick reacting to the snap, didn't move their feet very well, and on a consistent basis were playing from a position of recovery rather than taking the fight to the opponents. This was a big problem for the interior players, especially Wenger, Stewart, and Olsen.
What made matters were was the second thing I harped on, and that was poor footwork and bad technique. Getting beat off the line is bad enough, but if you don't use good footwork and good technique (both steps and hand techniques) your chance of success is small, very small. This happened quite a bit during the 2008 season. On the whole, with the exception of Mike Turkovich (and at times Trevor Robinson) the Notre Dame offensive line did not play with very good technique. Not only were the linemen slow footed, but their footwork was poor. In the zone it is imperative that your footwork be sound. Sound footwork and quick feet are going to consistently put an offensive linemen in position to execute his block, and dominate it if he has ability, which the Irish linemen do. But they were consistently under-stepping and consistently failed to get in proper position to dominate their opponents in the run game. On top of that they struggled with their hand placement and didn't use their hands well overall. Also, to make matters worse the linemen never seemed to grasp how to work combo blocks in the zone, which is a huge part of the zone game. Players would either not help when they should have helped, didn't give enough help when they did engage, or left too early which prevented the other linemen from overtaking the defender. This resulted in constant missed assignments and players getting beat. If you are going to run the zone your line has to be fundamentally sound, the 2008 Irish line was not sound, and it wasn't even close.
The third main emphasis ties into the end of the last paragraph, and that has to do with missed assignments. Going back and reading over my game breakdowns I see the phrase "missed assignment" written down a lot. Other than "poor footwork" it might have been the phrase I wrote the most. The Irish linemen did not execute their blocking assignments in the run game at a high level. The one exception throughout the season was Turkovich, who I felt was arguably the most consistent and effective linemen the Irish put out there. The player who struggled the most in this area was Wenger. As I mentioned previously, this was a huge issue in the zone game, where the Irish linemen consistently (meaning week by week, not necessarily play by play) failed to execute proper combo blocks and at times (far more often than should ever happen) would simply turn players loose. We saw this quite a bit in the pass game during the 2007 season, but it affected the run game in 2008. This backs up my theory that the Irish linemen never quite understood the combo block concept that the zone needs to be effective. At other times it was poor footwork or poor technique at the snap that cost the Irish linemen chances to make plays, or at times even caused them to flat miss a defender. One example that proved quite costly was Wenger whiffing at the snap against North Carolina. This resulted in Clausen's fumble that really turned that game around. Wenger wasn't responsible for the fumble, that was due to Clausen's poor ball protection in the pocket, but his missed block created the pressure that led to the fumble.
I don't feel the Irish offensive line executed very well during the 2008 season, so any article about how they played is going to be more negative than positive. But I want to talk about a few things that I do believe were big positives that I saw from this unit. First of all, the player who I was the hardest on during the 2007 season was Mike Turkovich. I railed on him every week and honestly felt by the end of the season he should have been on the bench. When I first heard they were moving him to left tackle I cringed. But that young man had a very, very good season for the Irish. He wasn't the same player in 2008. Unlike the 2007 season, where Turkovich blew many assignments, Turkovich played smart, executed well, had arguably the best/most consistent footwork, and was their most productive player on the line. He also played hard all season. That was something I saw from every player up front. I was never happy with the execution of the line, but I can honestly say I can't remember a time where I felt the unit didn't give good effort. Even in games where they were getting their tails handed to them (Boston College and Southern Cal) I never saw quit out of these young men. Look, anyone familiar with my beliefs about football know that I'm big on technique. I think that good coaching is the key to great production. But if you don't have a group of players who are willing to battle, give great effort, and never back down from a challenge there is only so far you can take them as a coach. The Irish players have that down, and that's a great place to start. If the new coach can add solid technique and better footwork this unit has a chance to be very, very good. I truly believe that.
One area where I have to give John Latina a lot of credit is how he turned around the protection of this unit. The 2006 and 2007 units were not very good in protection, with the 2007 units being one of the worst I've ever seen when it came to protecting the quarterback. Not only did the quarterbacks get sacked 58 times, but they were hit hard, hit often, and battered throughout the season. Even the 2006 unit had a lot of struggles when you look at the 31 sacks allowed plus the constant harassment Brady Quinn received during that season. The 2008 unit gave up only 1 more sack, in one more game, than the productive 2005 unit, which I felt was easily the best unit the Irish put on the field in the Weis era. Considering that it was essentially the same players we saw getting pummeled during the 2007 season, that's a tremendous accomplishment.
The first area of improvement in the pass game involved missed assignments, or lack thereof. In 2007, as I've mentioned before, a big problem when it came to pressure involved missed assignments. There were numerous occasions in the pass game where a player wouldn't be touched. It wasn't even that those players were beating Irish players that badly, it was simply that no one accounted for that player and he would simply come free to the quarterback. This happens at times with linebackers, but during the 2007 season it even happened quite a bit with defensive linemen, which should never happen. That didn't happen during the 2008 season. When it came to picking up their assignments, knowing who to block, and getting there the 2008 unit was solid. Turkovich was very solid protecting the backside of Jimmy Clausen, which as a former quarterback I can tell you is the first thing you want from your line. The tackles also learned that if you get beat outside ride the defenders away, which was a big improvement over 2007. The guards and center had their moments of struggle, but even they were vastly improved. Overall I felt the interior players did a fine job against the blitz, and even did a good job picking up twists and stunts which was a huge problem not only in 2007 but also in 2006.
Where the Irish players got into trouble, in similar fashion to the run game, was with their footwork and technique. When Sam Young got into trouble was when faster linemen began to speed rush him to the outside. Since he didn't get great jumps at the snap he was often put in recovery mode. This put him in bad positions. One of two things would happen. He would either get beat with the speed rush to the outside and was left lunging at the rushers. Once he started to do that he lost his base and strength and when those same players would then bulrush him he didn't have the base to slow down that rush and would get pushed back. Both of these issues were constant during his struggles but are both correctable with better coaching. Poor footwork and getting a bad start also were the biggest issues for the guards and centers, although how the footwork affected each player was different. Eric Olsen usually started off well in pass protection. With his strength and solid athletic ability Olsen was rarely out of position at the snap. The problem with Olsen is he didn't continue working his feet, and this consistently allowed defenders to beat him late. Olsen simply needs to learn to continue to work his feet throughout the play. Chris Stewart had this problem at times, but his biggest problem was usually not getting off the snap quickly enough. Dan Wenger suffered from both issues. He often didn't get off the ball quickly enough and found himself lunging more often than not, which prevented him from using his good foot quickness (which he has) from recovering from his late start. This is why he got beat so often, and this hurt him in both phases of the game (run and pass). Trevor Robinson's biggest problems were at the snap. He's so big and strong that if he was able to engage a player he would win, but when he got beat it was simply because he got beat off the ball. Considering how little background he had as a pass blocker I was quite pleased with Robinson's freshman year.
The Irish screen game continues to struggle. The reasons are simple so this section won't be very long. First of all the Irish players simply don't move well in space, with Trevor Robinson being the lone exception. They are often late to the perimeter, they are too high and stiff, and spend too much time looking around instead of simply locating a defender and then nailing him. They must improve their timing and footwork and have to learn to be more aggressive attacking the perimeter. Until they do the screen game will continue to be poor.
As I've said twice already in this article I was very pleased with Turkovich's senior season. He was the Irish's best player up front during the 2008 season and ended his Notre Dame career on a very high note. He had every reason to go in the tank, but showed mental toughness and rebounded in a big way from a poor 2007 season. Before the season began I never thought I would say this, but Turkovich will be missed and his position will not be easy to fill.
Young continues to show flashes of what made him such a highly regarded player. When he is right (meaning his footwork is sound, his base is solid, and he uses his hands well) Young can dominate the run game. He's the only Irish linemen at this point who has the ability to truly dominate in the run game. The issue with Young is that his footwork is so bad that he rarely is in position to really use his natural strength to dominate opponents. Moving forward he must improve his footwork and hand play. If he does, and can learn to be consistent, Young has a chance to really have a dominant senior season.
In my opinion Eric Olsen is the toughest player the Irish have up front. Olsen not only plays tough but he also battled through injuries all season. There were at least two occasions where Olsen got hurt and I thought he was done. I was wrong of course. I love that about him, but Olsen is more than a mauler. He's a better athlete than he is often given credit for. Like Young, Olsen's biggest issues are that he doesn't play with good footwork and he doesn't use his hands well. Both of these issues prevent him from using his strength to maul players.
Stewart plays with the most fire of any of the linemen and I like his attitude. This is a young man who at one point during the 2007 season was ready to leave. He has certainly grown quite a bit as a player since that time. When the Irish were at their best up front Stewart was starting and Robinson was allowed to spell him. Stewart is a better run player at this point, and uses his strength and girth to be effective. If he can be taught some technique to go along with that size and strength he'll be very effective.
Wenger really struggled during the 2008 season. He really needs a lot of work this offseason. Each week Wenger played with bad technique, and it didn't get any better. He's a young man who gives very good effort, but his technique is such that he hardly ever is in position to be successful. Wenger also had the most missed assignments as I see it. He really struggled with combo blocks and often times fired off the ball in a way where he didn't have much of a chance to properly engage the defenders. There is no doubt the young man has the toughness and athleticism to be successful, but until he improves his technique and truly learns the zone he won't be the player he is obviously capable of.
Robinson was quite successful during the 2008 season. He was the nation's top guard prospect and only solidified that standing with a solid freshman season. Robinson was solid in the run and pass game and showed that physically he was ready to play right away. That's rare. Robinson obviously needs a lot of technique work and has to continue to learn the offense, but his talent is as good, if not better than anyone else on the Irish line. Robinson was better when he was able to rotate with Stewart. When asked to carry the whole load he wasn't as effective, which isn't necessarily unexpected for a freshman in the Notre Dame offense, which is a bit complex.
Paul Duncan will return for a 5th year after starting the 2007 season at right and left tackle. He'll obviously be in contention for the starting left tackle spot to replace Turkovich. The Irish have landed three straight solid classes of offensive linemen which gives them very good depth. Matt Romine showed me some solid signs in his playing time this season. It will be interesting to see if Romine is able to challenge Duncan for the starting position this fall. Romine is a natural pass blocker who simply needs to continue to develop physically. I expect good things from him heading into his junior season. Taylor Dever plays hard and fast but really needs to come under control and play a more solid fundamental game. Andrew Nuss is a solid athlete who was in his first season as an offensive linemen (in college that is) after playing on the defensive line during his freshman season. He's raw but has upside at the guard position. Lane Clelland needed a lot of physical growth before he would be ready to play so I'm not sure how soon he'll be able to compete for playing time. Perhaps the 2009 season will be the year, but I would guess Clelland is still a year away. But he is a very good athlete, has good natural strength, and has pure left tackle abilities. Both Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. are natural centers, although Cave might be better off moving to guard. Golic needs a lot of strength/growth needed but is a good athlete and is instinctive at the center position. Cave is a true mauler but might lack the foot quickness to play center in the Irish offense. That's why I say guard might be his best spot. If Cave can improve his foot quickness he'll have a chance to be a really solid player, at center or guard. The freshman class is very talented and hands down the most athletic group of linemen the Irish have brought in. But all three players (Chris Watt, Zach Martin, Alex Bullard) will need a lot of work in the weight room before they are ready to contribute. Fans must be patient with those young men and not expect them to play as freshman. If they do, great, but it would be a surprise. None of them have the natural size and strength that allowed Trevor Robinson to physically handle playing as a freshman.
The talent is there, I have no doubt about it. The upperclassmen are quite different from the young players. The older players are big, strong (have to get a lot stronger, however), aggressive, and are run players. The younger players are more athletic and probably better suited for the type of zone offense Weis apparently wants to run. But that doesn't mean the older guys can't be very good run players. They simply must be taught how to play the game. So far I have really liked what I have heard from Frank Verducci. He is saying all the right things about toughness, technique, and improving the unit. If he can coach them up I believe the 2009 unit will be the best in the Weis era. They have that kind of talent, size, and ability but until they learn to play the game properly and improve their footwork they will always be more about potential than they are about talent.
Season in Review: Offensive Line
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