Back to the Classroom

Without a doubt, the position unit that has disappointed the most for the past couple of seasons along Notre Dame's roster has been the offensive line. A year after giving up 58 sacks in 2007, the unit showed some progress, decreasing that mark to 26 last season. Still, however, there is room for improvement heading into spring practices under new offensive line coach, Frank Verducci.

This area for growth is not only available in terms of pass blocking, but also with respect to run blocking, according to head coach Charlie Weis.

"So we've identified as one of the things we really want to, you know, work on right off the bat offensively is our running game," Weis said. "You get a little frustrated in these first two days because when you go with no pads on, to work on your running game, you know, that just doesn't mesh too well."

Weis, however, isn't the only one who has pointed out the need for improvement in rushing offense — his players are thinking of it too.

"The consistency in being able to get into your guy, and coach Verducci likes to use the term suffocate, the defender on the block and that's something that we're going to try and do," Sam Young said of which run blocking aspects needed improvement.

Having been penciled in as the starter at offensive tackle for every single game of his career, Young is by far the most experienced lineman along the unit. Despite his experience, the junior feels that there are a multitude of techniques to learn with Verducci's introduction.

"He is a technician," Young said of his new position coach. "He's a real good guy, you know, a different approach, but he's really a technician. … I mean he has a different way of doing things, without going too much into the various techniques. I could sit here and write a story for you on the different techniques. It's different ways of doing things, that is really the long story short."

One of those discrepancies that Young has picked up on in just the first week of practice is that Verducci constantly asks his players questions when they make errors if they had seen or felt any mistake. For the right tackle, the constant questions are like mental repetitions, even when he is not partaking in the drill.

"It helps a lot," Young said. "He wants us to be constantly taking mental reps. Whether you're first team, or second team, that's always vital. I think to be able to keep your head in the game, if you see a guy in front of you, maybe he does something right, maybe he does something wrong, you can learn from that, and it's really not a waste, you're taking an extra rep."

Playing opposite to Young, Paul Duncan is an early favorite to take the starting role at the left tackle position, which has plagued the Irish throughout past seasons. The fifth-year senior, who took a medical red-shirt after facing a season-ending surgery last year, also is benefiting from the constant questions.

"I think it helps a lot, because I think it makes us watch that rep, because if he asks you and you have no idea, it looks bad on you," Duncan said. "So you've got to make sure you're watching the rep. I think the more you watch anybody, you're going to get a better feel of what to do and how to do it, and it makes sure that we're thinking the same thing that he's thinking, and to get the new techniques down."

When faced with the question of demanding his players to self-correct themselves, Verducci found his coaching technique analogous to an environment that his unit is quite accustomed to — the classroom.

"I have told them the onus is on them to take a mental rep in everything that we do," Verducci said. "For a guy who misses practice, when he comes back, I have zero tolerance as far as assignment mistakes because that's my classroom and they're in class and they have to be attentive. It is just like any other class that they attend on campus. I mean, they don't get up and walk through things in chemistry and history. They sit there and pay attention. So it is an extension of that."

Eric Olsen is comfortable turning to this dynamic in practice because of his new coach's experience at the pro level. Verducci is coming off of a 10-year stint in the N.F.L. after coaching the Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, causing his players to trust his methods.

"I mean, obviously coming from the N.F.L., that's the approach that more N.F.L. coaches would have," he said. "When you're dealing with that level of players, you can have more of like a mental approach and understanding. That our players are able to correct ourselves and correct each other is like a major thing. If you're able to know the system that well and you know offensive line that well, if you can teach somebody else to play it, then that's a great thing as a player, so, yeah, that's something that he's trying to teach to us and do things that way."

For Verducci, the transition from the professional to collegiate levels has forced him to adapt as well. Therefore, he has acquired a "template" from which he judges and assesses his players.

"Now, with the pros, you have guys who have been exposed to more things, who are more experienced, who understand that template in that structure and respond to it quicker," Verducci said. "They have had multiple coaches and multiple years of play so they respond to it quicker. At this level, you have a least experienced player who has had less coaching and so they don't quite adapt to that as quickly and so that is the adjustment to realize that most of the things that we are trying to fight here, just the individual's lack of exposure to certain things. And to me, there will be certain times I will explain things to them and I'll get a look like they had never heard that before. On one hand that is scary that they had never heard that before, but on the other hand it makes me realize if they can acclimate to it, that the chance for them to make a big leap as far as production is there. On the other hand, it is exciting as well."

Not taking the subtle instances into account, clearly, there is a different energy among the offensive line this spring. How much of it is Verducci's presence and how much of it is urgency and other factors remains to be seen. If you ask the most experienced guy in the group, he will tell you that it's all a matter of realizing potential.

"I can't put my finger on it, I really can't" Young said. "But I think the guys really know how talented we are, what a chance we have to do something special. The way I think about it, there's only one championship we're going for. We're not in the Big Ten, we're going for the BCS Championship and in my mind there's no reason we can't make that jump with the talent pool we have right now."


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