Last season, the Notre Dame offensive line was considered an "improved" group. And undeniably, the unit was better than it had been the previous year when it served as a national punch line. But college football doesn't hand out ribbons for participation and the '08 Irish front five was, in truth, mediocre at best.
Inconsistent execution contributed to an 18 for 38 conversion rate by Irish running backs Robert Hughes and James Aldridge on 3rd-or-4th-and-short carries during '07 and '08. Add Armando Allen to the mix (two conversions in five tries) and the Irish were just 20 of 43 on 3rd-and/or 4th-and-short over that span.
Change was inevitable, but significant improvement in 2009 was not.
Across the Board"It feels good to gain the tough yards, but it feels even better to know that my offensive linemen know they have the confidence that they can get any block," said Allen, the junior halfback who posted his first back-to-back 100-plus yard rushing efforts in September games vs. Michigan and Michigan State. "When you have a group of guys like that it makes me feel better and makes me feel more confident as a runner."
Allen should feel confident, and so should his offensive line teammates as those pesky statistics that plagued the group over its last 25 games have finally turned in their favor. Paul Duncan, Chris Stewart, Eric Olsen, Trevor Robinson, Sam Young, and key backup Dan Wenger comprise the set of six that has helped Allen go 6 for 6…converting on each of his six 3rd-and-short (two yards or fewer) attempts this season. Allen was also successful on his only fourth-and-short attempt this season, converting a 2nd Quarter 4th-and-1 into a first down Saturday vs. the Spartans.
As for the rest of the starting backfield? 3 for 3, thank you very much, with contributions from (now injured) fullback James Aldridge (4th and 1 vs. Nevada) and quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who's converted both of his short-yardage sneaks into a new set of downs.
The group that couldn't stay on the field in '07 and '08 is a perfect 10 for 10 in meaningful short yardage situations this season (10-13 overall, as sophomore Jonas Gray and freshman Theo Riddick were both turned back on 3rd and short during the 4th Quarter vs. Nevada…the Irish led 35-0 at the time).
It's the early-season development skeptical Irish fans had hoped for: Notre Dame has a power running game to augment the nation's best passing attack (though that latter status will take a hit after the loss of sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd due to a broken clavicle) and the six regular offensive linemen mentioned above deserve ample credit for the team's ground-game gains. So too does Allen, the most improved football player in the program through three weeks.
But it's the running game's leader, new offensive line coach and running game coordinator Frank Verducci, who's seemingly done the impossible: make Irish fans confident again when Clausen turns to hand the ball to a ‘back behind the line of scrimmage.
Verducci's boss has regained confidence in the running game as well.
"I was always used to (being able to) count on the offensive line coach," said Weis in his Tuesday press conference. "Whether it be (Weis mentioned three NFL colleagues, including Dante Scarnecchia, the New England Patriots offensive line coach during Weis' tenure with the team) – some of the best offensive line coaches you could count on in the NFL – I always relied on those guys to give me the information needed to avoid a lot of issues and I think he's (Verducci) done a really good job of doing that for me.
"He's not just an offensive line coach," Weis continued. "He's also dealt with skill guys. A lot of offensive line coaches just worry about the offensive line. That's all they worry about: sacks and run production.
"But Frank understands the big picture. He's not afraid to expose the offensive linemen if it gives us the big chance of attacking the defense."
Notre Dame has attacked its first three opponents well enough to rank No. 1 in the nation in terms of offensive efficiency; to score touchdowns on 7 of 10 trips inside the red zone; and to final produce final numbers of 35, 34, and 33 points per contest.
When asked to point to a specific change by himself and/or Verducci, Weis offered that, as usual, it's a combination of smaller items that comprise the whole.
"Some of its blocking schemes; some of its packages; some of its giving multiple looks to get the same play. We always talked about getting something you can hang your hat on.
"He (Verducci) together with the offensive staff and myself are starting to take a whole bunch of offensive looks and we're starting to get good at a few things that we can call over and over and over again which gives you a chance to have some success."
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts
For Verducci, success in the running game is more than the exactness of hand placement or drilling his particular unit to fire off the ball in unison. It's about removing himself from the mindset the O-Line world and helping to impart a collective plan to the offense.
"It's kind of tunnel vision when you're just working with the linemen, but it's more (than that) when you're putting the run game together from a schematic standpoint – from a game plan standpoint – that you try to think about the receivers or the fullback…putting the perimeter blockers in the best position possible."
Those perimeter blockers, namely wide receiver Duval Kamara; tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Mike Ragone, and fullback/tight end Bobby Burger, have excelled both in-line and downfield, turning would-be-minimal gains into acceptable early-down yardage, and more importantly, turning the standard 5-yard carry into a first down foray beyond the second level of the defense.
Kamara was cited by Weis as the team's top blocker at his position: ("It's not even close") and junior Golden Tate has evolved from an indifferent downfield blocker into a key contributor in the team's screen game.
Rudolph, one of the nation's most promising tight end prospects and a potentially dominant pass-catcher, received recent praise for his individual improvement as a player off the ball.
"Significantly improved," said Weis of Rudolph in the running game. "He's a very prideful person. In the first game against Nevada, although he had production in the passing game, he didn't have a very good day at the point of attack.
"He's really stepped up the last couple weeks. For most of the day (vs. MSU) he was handling the edge and really did a nice job for us."
What was the impetus for Rudolph's 180 as a blocker?
"He remembered that tight ends block; he's not a wide receiver," Weis quipped. "I asked him if he wanted to change his number and go meet with Coach Ianello. The week of the Michigan game we were going to move him to the wide receiver room after his blocking performance (in the opener), but he asked if he could stay with the tight ends."
Rudolph will likely be in a tight end meeting room for the next 15 years of his life, but its the next nine games that matter to him and to September's most valuable assistant.
"In all honesty its a week-to-week deal. It's who you have on the field (vs.) who they have on the field. There's a lot of variables that go into it.
"Basically what we've done in the past is behind us. The expiration date on being a good offensive line is September 26 and we're going to have to go out and renew it."