Take Back the Trenches

Notre Dame's pursuit of winning football begins up front.

In need of ammo for your next friendly (or heated) discussion regarding Notre Dame football?

Point: Head coach Brian Kelly noted the team's running backs as a position of strength, both at the conclusion of the spring and the outset of fall camp.
Point: Kelly has identified 10 offensive linemen that can play "winning football" and has already added to that list the names of two promising freshmen tackles.
Point: Running backs coach Tim Hinton believes he has four "complete ‘backs" to work with.
Point: Offensive line coach Ed Warinner is pleased with the effort, versatility and depth of his position group.

Counterpoint: The four worst rushing seasons in the history of the Notre Dame football program were (in order): 2007, 2008, 2006 and 2009. National rankings in that span? 115, 100, 72 and 84. Aside from the aforementioned freshmen tackles and one redshirt-freshmen tailback, the Irish have added no new roster members that four-year span of futility.

In other words, why should we embrace the following:

"I think the tight end position; coupled with five guys that have been working together fairly long now and a very good host of ‘backs. I think all of those things together; I would be very surprised if we are not a solid team running the football." – Brian Kelly, August 17

An (eternal) optimist could argue Notre Dame was solid at times running the football last season, at least when the team's top running back, Armando Allen, and offensive lineman, Trevor Robinson, were on the field in good health.

The rallying cry for change last August was "100 aggregate starts along the offensive line." Then Navy held Notre Dame to 60 yards on 20 carries in November and the season spiraled out of control.

Was coaching the issue? It was certainly part of it, though I think former offensive line coach Frank Verducci was an excellent technician, a solid motivator and definitely well-versed in his craft. And the reported disconnect that existed between ex-line coach Dennis Latina and Charlie Weis didn't exist between the latter and Verducci.

Was it the team's mindset? Most likely. The Irish lacked toughness – and according to their new head coach, they're still working on developing an acceptable level of that trait – and the staff appeared to lose confidence in the running game when Allen wasn't the primary ball carrier.

Aside from a fresh start, an off-season of apparent physical transformation, and the proverbial chip on their collective shoulders (if this influences the outcome of football games, Navy's players are apparently weighted down by Texas-sized chips), what is it that the head coach sees in his unproven core up front?

"Obviously some experience at the offensive line, although some would say that you lost your best linemen," Kelly said (Note: Some, including me, would say "best" is not the first word that comes to mind, but I digress…).

"They're not rookies in a sense, they've played some football," he continued. "As a unit they work well together. The tight end position is going to provide us some blocking. The last couple of years at Cincinnati we had pass catchers; we didn't necessarily have a guy that could block a (defensive) end."

Tackle Trio

There are a handful of positions on the 2010 team in which the starters appear set: punter, kicker, quarterback, tight end, the "W" receiver, the slot receiver, the three-man defensive line, the "Cat" outside linebacker, the "Mike" linebacker, right guard, left guard and left tackle.

If you crave camp competition, join OL coach Ed Warinner over the next week-plus as he attempts to sort out the remaining two spots (C and RT) and his second unit.

"We moved him out at the end of spring to play some tackle and challenge for that position," Warinner said of senior Andrew Nuss, who competed at guard for most of his collegiate career.

"We're trying to get our five best linemen on the field and he's trying to be one of the 5, 6, 7-best offensive linemen. So where can he help us? Can he beat someone else out? We looked at him at guard and he wasn't able to catch (Chris) Stewart, but he's athletic, so maybe he could make a push to start at tackle," Warinner offered of the staff's approach.

"He's doing that, he's looked good and worked hard. He's had a good camp so he's put himself in a position where he's shown versatility where he can get playing time whether he walks out with the first unit or not."

Kelly has noticed Nuss' effort, as has the coach whose troops battle him every practice.

"It's interesting when we have staff meetings, I'm the first to ask (defensive line coach) Mike Elston about the offensive line, and Mike kept pounding the table on Nuss," Kelly offered, while noting Warinner felt similar.

"(Elston) said, ‘His competitive fire. He's just really competitive and he moves his feet well.' When we hear ‘really competitive' and ‘moves his feet well' we think ‘tackle.'"

Nuss is in competition with classmates Taylor Dever (who appeared to finish the spring with a leg up for the role) and Matt Romine – who was supplanted by redshirt-freshman Zack Martin earlier in the spring.

"We all felt that they had some strengths and some things they needed to work on," Kelly said of the senior trio, each of whom can apply for a fifth season of eligibility after the season. "So we wanted to make it competitive and that's why at the end of the day we went with Nuss out at that right tackle position, but quite frankly he can play both (guard and tackle) and that's what helps him out as well."

Pivot Personnel

"Can any of you snap? Any eligibility left?"

Kelly's tongue-in-cheek offer to the media near the conclusion of spring practice has apparently remained a cause for pause, as two centers – 5th-year senior Dan Wenger and redshirt-junior Braxston Cave – continue to run neck-and-neck for the starting role in the middle of the offensive line.

"Wenger is a lot more consistent snapping; Braxston we struggle a little bit with his shotgun snaps (but) Braxston, when he blocks you; you're blocked," Kelly assessed before admitting, "the problem is, his choice of who he blocks, is not always correct."

"If we can get his choices as to who he blocks to be consistent he can block anybody that he goes against."

Experience and a shotgun snap that won't kill a play before it starts vs. potential and power: you'll likely see both competitors in September though expect Kelly and Warinner to settle on one to establish continuity as the offense finds its way.

Will – and Wind – to Win

Conditioning and toughness are not exclusive to the disparity bulleted below…but both played a part in Notre Dame's declining running fortunes over the last two seasons:

  • September Rushing Totals: 8 games/6 victories; 281 carries for 1,067 yards and 8 touchdowns.
  • November Rushing Totals: 9 games/1 win; 271 carries for 858 yards and 5 touchdowns.

The one win in that two-year November span occurred vs. Navy, a game in which the Irish rushed 51 times for 230 yards and 2 TD. Numbers that make render the remaining eight late-season contests difficult to comprehend.

Can the 2010 Irish put together 12 weeks of winning football up front?

"I think Coach Warinner's brought a lot of toughness to that group," said running backs coach Tim Hinton. "They've been playing hard; they're finishing blocks, they've been very square on double teams. Just all the fundamental things you want offensive linemen to do."

Warinner's development has worked in conjunction with the tutelage of new Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo's off-season body – or bodies – of evidence.

"Oh there's no question this football team is stronger," Hinton added. "Coach Longo did a great job. They're much more physically developed in these last eight months than they were (when the staff arrived)."

Power, quickness, tenacity, technique…all required, but ultimately inconsequential without a final necessary trait.

"So much of football is will," Hinton said. "I put on my tip sheet every week: ‘Break their will with your toughness.'

"Because that guy's fighting; you're fighting; who has the will to get their job done?" Hinton continued. "It comes down to 80 (plays) of will. Eventually, whoever wins the ‘will battle' the most that day normally wins the game.

"You can have all the fundamentals and strength you want, but if you don't have the will you're not very good. That's just not a (area) for soft guys."

The hardened Irish front wall now must put their coaches' teachings into practice.

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