The Elephant in the Room

The improvement of a veteran offensive line will determine if the Irish are BCS bound this season.

We continue our Pre-Camp Unit Rankings of the team's 11 major position groups with the No. 10 overall unit heading into August, the offensive line.

Irish Eyes has painted a rosy picture of the upcoming season and the Irish offense, projecting Jimmy Clausen to have a breakout season; the running backs to finally find daylight; and the receivers and tight end to challenge team records while riddling defenses downfield. None of the above is possible if the offensive line, a talented and experienced group, is not the team's most improved unit from 2008.

Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.

Offensive Line:

Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 10 behind the team's WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage teams, QB, RB, LB, TE, Kick/Punt Return teams, and Field Goal Unit.

Pre-season National Acclaim: Guard Eric Olsen was named to The Sporting News third-team pre-season All America team and as Phil Steele's 25th rated guard. Chris Stewart ranks as Steele's No. 13 guard while senior Sam Young is the fourth-ranked tackle on Steele's draft eligible list and was named to the magazine's second-team All America squad. Center Dan Wenger is the 11th rated center for Steele while the Irish offensive line as a whole is projected as Steele's fifth-best OL group in the nation. Additionally, Young is ranked as the seventh-best OT in the nation by Lindy's Football Preview.

Starters: 5th-year senior LT Paul Duncan; senior LG Eric Olsen; senior C Dan Wenger; senior RG Chris Stewart; senior RT Sam Young.

"Sixth Starter" Sophomore guard Trevor Robinson

Veteran Depth: Junior LT Matt Romine; junior RT Taylor Dever; junior G Andrew Nuss.

Rookie Depth: Sophomore C Braxton Cave (2:03 playing time in 2008) ; sophomore/(redshirt freshman) G Mike Golic, Jr.; sophomore T Lane Clelland; freshman G Chris Watt; freshman G Alex Bullard; freshman T Zach Martin. Sophomore walk-on G Mike Hernandez could also earn a spot on the depth chart.

Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: With 100 career starts to its credit and a new position coach, I'll go as high as No. 5 behind the WR, DB, Coverage Units, and QB.

Lowest Team Ranking (of the 11 Units) I Can Fathom at Season's End: No. 11. Unlike the (ninth-ranked) field goal unit, there are several moving parts that need attention. And unlike the field goal unit, there are several 6'5, 300-pound, ultra-quick athletes smashing the OL in the face on every play. The OL must prove it can handle a physical defensive front.

Strengths: Experience: the group possesses 100 aggregate starts among the starting five (and key backup Trevor Robinson). They've seen every level of defense and most schemes that college football has to offer.

Improvement: The 2008 O-Line permitted just eight sacks in the team's seven victories last season after yielding 10 in the team's three wins in 2007. As well, the group mitigated the damage of opposing pass rushers in its six losses last year, allowing 15 total sacks – a manageable number for the offense to overcome rather than the comical 48 sacks allowed in the team's nine losses of 2007.

Promise: The front wall showed it had the ability to open holes, rushing for 683 yards on 140 carries and six of the season's 11 rushing touchdowns in games vs. Purdue (93rd ranked rush defense); Washington (117th) and Navy (47th).

Versatility: Robinson, the team's swing starter/sixth OL, can play both guard positions and tackle if necessary. He's also experienced as a third tight end in jumbo sets. Young has played both left and right tackle (he's firmly planted on the right side now, but could move in case of injury). Guard Eric Olsen is reportedly training at center as well.

Weaknesses: Numbers never show the full story, but this collection is sobering for Irish fans nonetheless:

  • 98 carries yielded a total of 173 yards rushing (and zero touchdowns) in losses to Michigan State (67th ranked rush D), Boston College (7), Syracuse (101), and USC (5). That's a starting point to refute any pre-season honors listed above. The longest run by a Notre Dame player vs. Syracuse was nine yards.
  • In the two other losses, the Irish running game was better, gaining 204 yards and a rushing touchdown on 69 combined carries vs. UNC (56th ranked rush defense) and Pittsburgh (29). But "better" is a relative term, as that effort equates to 2.95 yards per carry, which would rank 107th in the nation if extrapolated over the course of the season (ND ranked 100 out of 119 teams with a 3.27 ypc. average over its 13-game slate).
  • In four pass-heavy victories, the Irish managed 266 yards on 99 total carries (2.68 average per carry) and five rushing scores vs. SD State (118th-ranked rushing defense); Michigan (70); Stanford (77); and Hawaii (65).

Subjectively, the line has consistently struggled to block in space, execute in the screen game with the exception of the performance vs. Hawaii, or recognize line stunts vs. (even) three-man fronts (a major issue in the overtime loss to Pittsburgh and on three consecutive plays in the final 40 seconds in the loss at UNC). The group's failings in short-yardage situations are well-documented on these pages, struggling for the better part of 25 games converting on just 26 of a possible 56 third-or-fourth and less-than-two situations when blocking for the Allen/Aldridge/Hughes trio.

Year-End Prediction and Ranking: The obscene rushing stats listed above are numbers from 2008. This is 2009. The Irish have a new offensive line coach and the group's starters are now in their 5th, 4th, 4th, 4th, and 4th seasons respectively in the strength and conditioning program. Each has shown flashes of potential, such as Young and Stewart caving in the right side vs. Purdue; Olsen hammering away in the 2nd half vs. Michigan; and Wenger teaming with Olsen for an Aldridge TD blast at North Carolina. Paul Duncan, a scapegoat for the line's failure in 2007, was singled out by the coaching staff as the clear-cut winner of the LT job for 2009 after sitting out last season.

Improvement from the disaster of 2007, though inevitable, was nonetheless encouraging, as the front five lowered its sacks allowed from the impossible (58) to the respectable (23), boasting seven different Saturdays in which it allowed one or zero sacks. The rushing average from 2007 (2.1 yards-per-carry, the lowest in school history) rose more than a full yard, to 3.27 (the second-lowest in school history, unfortunately). A half-yard gain and legitimate goal of 3.75 yards-per-carry in 2009, or (dare to dream, an average approaching 4.0 per carry – an effort that would rank as the highest of the Weis era), seems attainable.

This O-Line has been a maligned group, with five of its members enduring some of the program's darkest days. And there were two head-shaking moments early last season that served as a portent of things to come in an uneven 2008:

  • San Diego State: On the game's first possession, the team that we were told was "going to pound it…" came out with the following opening-season sequence vs. a run defense that would finish 118th in the nation: 1st and 10 rush for 4 yards; 2nd and 6 rush for 4 yards; then on 3rd and 2…(you would hope) another run for the first down, right? (Hope) that they'd line up and bury the man in front of them and establish the "pound it" identity. Instead, they settled for a (bullet) slant pass that was dropped... and once again the unit walked meekly off the field.
  • Michigan: The most emotional game of the season, featuring a quick start by the special teams, the defense, and the Irish passing attack. With a 21-7 lead, James Aldridge carried the ball from the Wolverines 16-yard line to the 8 for a first down. He then gashed the right side for a gain of 7, setting up 2nd and goal at the 1-yard line. What's next? Aldridge's first career home touchdown? Lining up and taking your rival's will by force? No. A play-action pass to the back of the end zone.

Was this latter observation overly critical (considering the Irish scored on the next play)? Or does it speak to the mindset of a finesse offense that, even with a two touchdown lead, at home on a rain-soaked field, decided deception represented its best chance of advancing the ball 9-10 feet.

At some point, a good football team will insist its offensive line impose its will on the opponent. Whether this will happen under the direction of new O-Line Coach and Running Game Coordinator Frank Verducci remains to be seen, but it did not happen, save for 4-5 contests vs. extremely weak defenses, in the last two seasons. Duncan, Olsen, Wenger, Stewart, and Young are now grizzled veterans, three of which enter their final season of eligibility, while two others (Wenger and Stewart) could return for 2010. Sophomore Trevor Robinson is less likely to wait in the wings than he is to take one of their jobs. This group, roughly the same unit that served as the nation's whipping boys in ‘07, holds the key to the program's next BCS berth.

Rating the group higher than 10th (due to off-season changes and potential) might seem appropriate to some, but success, at this point, is pure speculation. I don't think the group will finish as a team weakness, but the O-Line has a lot to prove before they can be considered a team strength. It's time to consistently open holes; to execute in space; to give Clausen time vs. the better defenses, and allow the rest of the talented offense to function accordingly.

A performance similar to last season will yield similar results...or possibly an empty 8-4 regular season. Football Purgatory. Mild improvement and the team is headed for 9-3...not enough for most Irish fans depending on the ensuing bowl opponent and outcome.

But noticeable improvement by the unit will put the Irish in a BCS game, a realistic goal for a program that faces a manageable schedule of opponents. And if the unit somehow becomes a team strength, one of its top 3-4 position groups, well, I'll see you in Pasadena.


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