Monday, August 27, 2007

#7 - Sullivan's Travels

You can please some people all of the time, and all people some of the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time. That must be what Charlie Weis is telling himself as he continues to take a beating for having the audacity not to reveal his starting quarterback to the public. I can't say I don't see where the cynics are coming from; this is a very fine psychological tightrope Weis has chosen to prance out onto, but if the media horde is simply trying to set him up so he can throw one of his QBs under the bus, think again. I also find it odd that Stewart Mandel calls Weis arrogant when Mandel claims to know who the starter is, the extent of Clausen's injury, the fact that Clausen won't start but will sometime soon, and that Notre Dame's offense has already been so thoroughly dissected by Jon Tenuta that Georgia Tech will have the Irish beat no matter who the QB is.

My biggest problem with Mandel is his ridiculously out of context quote taken from Justin Tuck propped up as evidence of Weis' arrogance. Tuck was commenting on how Weis, brought in as a guest speaker for the Irish squad during off-season workouts after their dubious 5-7 2003 campaign, let them hear it instead of being the standard "Notre Dame is a magical place" mouthpiece. Tuck came away impressed by Weis' confidence/arrogance, yet Mandel apparently felt he must've surely been reaching the conclusion which the mass media has of Weis being an arrogant S.O.B. Which he is - but in a good way.

Moving along in the countdown...

#7 - Sullivan's Travels

John Sullivan finally came full circle last week. In a Thursday team huddle before practice, Weis not only surprised 4 walk-ons with full scholarships for the coming season, but announced that the coaching staff had unanimously selected a fifth captain. Sullivan, a hulking 6-4 center from Greenwich, CT, has traveled a long way towards that moment, covering 33 starts (the last 21 in a row) at the position. And now, in his fifth year, 'Sully' stands alone on an offensive line that is for the first time that anyone can remember long on talent and short on experience.

Bob Morton, Dan Santucci, Ryan Harris, Mark LeVoir, & Dan Stevenson have all moved on. And, with due respect to the quarterback position, the one spot on the field where Weis needed to make an impact and make one immediately was the recruiting of the offensive line. Willingham's staff badly understocked the position, often relying on converted defensive players (like Santucci), and Weis' "arrogant" style of tough love chased off John Kadous & Chauncey Incarnato. As good as Sullivan and fellow '03 recruit Ryan Harris turned out to be, they were the only O-Lineman in that class. The '04 and '05 hauls likewise produced just two true "blocks of granite".

So Weis and John Latina went to work, first at teaching the few men they had still standing to be expected to play multiple positions. Sullivan was the prime example, switching frequently between guard and center with Morton before settling back in as the primary snap man following Morton's injury in the Purdue game. Then the recruits started to pile up: Eric Olsen, Matt Carufel, Chris Stewart, Bartley Webb, Dan Wenger, & Sam Young last season. Matt Romine and Taylor Dever this season, along with Northwestern transfer (and one of the rewarded walk-ons) Thomas Bemenderfer. Suddenly, lo and behold, just like with cornerback, there are second and third options. Unusual, I know.

Sullivan was one leader amidst a crowd over the past two seasons. But with most of those guys now gone, Weis and his staff took the time to realize that the rest of a very green offensive line is taking its cues from him and responded accordingly. If Sullivan had a tall task compensating for Morton and Santucci on either side of him, what challenges might await when he has to break in both Wenger and Olsen in the trenches, especially against three stout defenses to open the year (Tech, Penn State, and Michigan). It has all the classic marks of a unit that could go through massive growing pains and potentially cost the Irish some games - kind of like the one Sullivan watched from the sidelines in 2003 that had 4 new starters, was forced to put Harris onto the field by October and stumbled to the 5-7 marked that first introduced all of Notre Dame to the arrogant buffoonery of Charlie Weis. Or something like that, right Stewart?

So basically what I'm saying is that Sullivan's important this year. How important? Well, take a look at what the first-rate analysis from Blue-Gray Sky last week, a breakdown of Notre Dame's running plays over the last two years, showed. Weis' offense, due to being led by the sleek but not explosive Darius Walker, earned a reputation for being a finesse running attack dominated by sweeps and draws; not enough counters and slashes and bursts into the line. I think some coach once referred to this as "three yards and a cloud of dust." Whether it was situational, coincidental, or accidental, Weis stayed on the outside a lot more in Year Two, probably due to the fact that with the loss of Stevenson he had an average-at-best interior of the line. The pounding runs weren't an option regardless of who was toting the rock. Maybe if James Aldridge had been healthy from the start of the year, Weis would've explored that avenue earlier so he could've used it instead of calling for sweeps in short yardage against USC and LSU. But he didn't. Now he really needs Sullivan to take his game to the another level, and more importantly, get Wenger, Olsen, Stewart, & Carufel to go their with him. To again point out the obvious, there are far greater things developing inside the Irish program than the "nuke-code-like" security blanket Weis has thrown over the starting QB line on the depth chart. If Sullivan brings the youngsters up to speed in a hurry and buys whomever is behind him a little bit of time to settle in, great things could await the Irish in 2007. But it also could be an o-line that looks very, very familiar.

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