With the addition of coach Frank Verducci to the Irish coaching staff, the players along the offensive line knew that there were no pre-conceived notions that would help them get an edge over their teammates. As a result, the competition within the unit has been healthy and fierce.
One spot that has plagued the Irish for some time now has been the left tackle position. Penciled in as the starter in Notre Dame's 3-9 season in 2007, senior Paul Duncan suffered a season-ending injury last year, causing him to attain a medical redshirt. With Duncan's absence, senior Mike Turkovich did an outstanding job of filling in and exceeding expectations at the position last season. Now that Turkovich has used up his eligibility, it's time for someone else to take control of the spot. Early on in the spring, Verducci knew who had separated himself from the pack.
"My chips, to be up front with you, are on Paul Duncan right now," coach Verducci said regarding the early leader for the spot. "I think Paul is a guy who, for a lack of a better term, is a guy who has some regrets with how his first four years have gone here and those are things that can't be changed. But I think he has experienced enough to realize he has one more round to go in this thing and he would like to overcome a lot of that in this last time around. The exposure I have had to him has been nothing but positive and I am counting on him for leadership and experience. He is a big physical guy and I think he sees that he can turn this last year into something that the first four years haven't been. He's going to have every opportunity to do that."
Now that he is completely healthy and ready for competition, Duncan is merely looking to shake off the rust from his time away from football and improve with each practice.
"I'm just trying to go out there and focus on getting better each and every day," he said. "Being out last year was a tough break, but it kind of let me see things from a different perspective. I kind of saw what it was like to be a coach, so I was much more vocal since I couldn't play. But now I'm trying to get back into the rhythm of things and what I've been doing is taking three things that I'm trying to improve on in each practice. So coach Verducci will tell me to make a list of three things before each practice, and I'll try and work on those."
Although Verducci had some laudatory comments to say about Duncan, he is by no means the starter by default. In fact, Verducci sees the competition at the left tackle position to be open.
"The competition there is good, not quite as deep as it is at guard, but I'm pleased with the progress that we've made," he said.
Every other position along the offensive line, however, has its starters in place without any question. Playing opposite Duncan or whoever emerges at left tackle is Sam Young, the anchor and most experienced player among the unit, having started every single contest since his freshman year.
"He's a hard working guy who is one of those guys that is constantly pursuing perfecting the position," Verducci said of Young. "Sam is harder on his own self-evaluation than I am on him. He's a pleasure to work with. I think he's a guy that could have a big, big senior year for us, that's what I anticipate."
The right guard position will surely belong to Chris Stewart as the junior gained valuable playing time last season, when he started in nine of the 10 games he played in last year. Dan Wenger will man the center spot, where he started 12 of 13 contests last season and has developed a solid relationship with Jimmy Clausen. Finally, Eric Olsen, who gained a reputation for being one of the more aggressive linemen and is not afraid to show some emotion on the field, will occupy the left guard spot where he started 12 games last season.
CHARTING DEPTH: For the first time in several seasons, the Irish can enjoy some experienced leadership along the offensive line. With this maturity, a certain degree of depth has also emerged, thanks in part to a pair of solid recruiting classes.
One of the first players who should work his way off of the bench and spell either starting guards is Trevor Robinson. The Elkhorn, Neb. native was an early enrollee last spring and saw some significant minutes last season, starting three contests when Stewart was ailing with injuries. Expect Robinson to see the field a great deal during the Blue-Gold game and heading into next year.
With the uncertainty at the left tackle spot, it will be imperative to have a replacement at both tackle spots when the starters need a rest or in case of injury. This is where sophomores Matt Romine, Taylor Dever and freshman Lane Clelland will compete for some playing time. Both Romine and Dever seem to be the likely substitutions due to their limited playing time last season. Clelland did not participate in a single contest last season, and there is some mystery as to his development thus far.
In terms of the interior of the line, coach Verducci mentioned a pair of players that have not made significant contributions in their careers but have impressed him thus far.
"They've kind of separated themselves a little bit," Verducci said. "Andrew Nuss has done a fine job for us, he's shown us that he can be competitive at either guard position. I'm pleased with the progress that Mike Golic has made. Through necessity, the door opened for him to jump in there with the ones at center and he's shown a lot of potential there. Those two guys would stand out above everybody else with that second group."
In addition, Braxston Cave could be a potential surprise contributor at the center spot to foil Wenger.
KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR: In the one practice that was completely open to the media, Nuss impressed all in attendance pancaking defenders with ease, especially in Irish Eyes, or Notre Dame's version of the Oklahoma drill. One theme throughout this spring for the offensive coaches has been a continual mentioning of Nuss' progress and how much he has impressed thus far.
"What it does do is it just gives you more options," Verducci said of Nuss' versatility. "The fact that he can play both guard positions gives you depth there. It's basically like having two guys. You're never going to have all five guys for every game of the season. So his opportunity, at some point, more than likely arrives and we're trying to get him ready for that. But he's shown the ability to jump in there and do some good things."
Nuss' work ethic over the off-season seems to be bearing fruit, as the sophomore has increased his muscle mass and worked on his technique. He already comes in with an impressive physical frame at 6-foot-5 and could work his way into the regular rotation next season.
INJURIES, ETC.: Fortunately for the Irish, the offensive line has not suffered through any serious injuries this spring. Robinson and Dever were both listed in the group of players that would be limited this spring, but each has been consistently present in practice. The one exception came several weeks ago when Dever requested coach Charlie Weis' permission to skip a practice to be with his family for personal reasons. Additionally, Romine was seen in shorts in some days when the rest of the squad was in full pads. Other than that, the offensive line seems to be benefiting from good health and looks to improve on last season's progress from 2007.