Monday, September 01, 2008

Take Me To Your Leader

Our talking points get more serious as the clock ticks under 7 days to go before kickoff. Rolling to a stop in the sixth spot is...

#6 - Greetings, Linemen. Take Me To Your Leader

Remember last season how young Notre Dame's offensive line was? (Hint: really, really young.) In contrast to the previous two seasons, when the five projected starters all had significant time together and plenty of experience to fall back on - 2005: 102 combined starts, 2006: 92 - the 2007 offensive line had just 46 career starts on their ledger, divided among only two players, fifth-year center John Sullivan with 33 and sophomore tackle Sam Young with 13.

At the same time the Irish offense was imploding due in no small measure to no running lanes and frequent pocket collapses around whichever poor sap got sent back to handle the Irish quarterbacking duties, a number of teams in major college conferences were flying high even as they dealt with those same youth movements, raising plenty of questions, more than a few hackles, and perhaps a few suicide contemplations within the Irish fanbase. The most popular example was undoubtedly Georgia, which started last year 5-2 and got hammered by Tennessee and nearly upset by Vanderbilt in consecutive road games last season. But the Bulldogs righted themselves for the big showdown with Florida thanks to an unscripted surge of emotion that's been much ballyhooed about (since they won the game, after all) and by the end of the year the team from the hard conference with three true freshman on the offensive line along with a freshman running back and sophomore quarterback was considered the hottest team in the country and a trendy BCS champion pick for this upcoming season.

The Irish featured first-time players galore last season: redshirt freshman Dan Wegner, Eric Olson, & Chris Stewart, plus first-time starters Mike Turkovich and Paul Duncan along with freshman Matt Romine, transfer Thomas Bemenderfer, and the since-departed Matt Carufel. How come they managed to allow a ludicrous 58 sacks while Georiga apparently jelled into one of the nation's best? The answer, in part, comes from that shadowy category of intangibles. A selection from the Sports Illustrated piece three weeks ago that anointed the Bulldogs #1:
Offensive lineman Chris Davis can find the hole. He's one of the Bulldogs trying to fill it. Of the five starters Georgia must replace, Davis says, none will be missed more than center Fernando Velasco. During a 2007 season in which the Bulldogs started three freshmen up front—Davis and Clint Boling at the guards and Trinton Sturdivant at left tackle—Velasco was 328 pounds of glue. "Fernando was a lot older than we were, a lot wiser," says Davis, who has been working at center since Velasco's departure. "We were all young pups."
To quote many a wise man, leadership is not something that can be faked. Either you have it or you don't. And in a game where so much can swing on one person stepping up to take charge of a fragile situation, leadership (or lack thereof) can have devestating consequences on either you or your opponent.

Don't take that as throwing John Sullivan under the bus. By all accounts, Sully was a fine representative of Notre Dame on the field and off, well-liked by his teammates and well-respected by his coaches. Would they have made him a captain prior to the start of the season if things had been otherwise? But despite having what should've been a rudder in the middle of the line to help a green QB and inexperience linemates, the Irish looked rudderless for almost all of 2007. The line was far from the only problem last year, but it goes without saying that a breakdown in the trenches is usually the start of a chain reaction that ends in failure for an offense. It wasn't something that could be pinned on any one player, something easy to define. It was more along the lines of pornography - you simply know it when you see it. Something significant was missing, and knowing it's not there and figuring out how to put it there are too very different things. There was a reason Young showed up at Weis' office before dawn last November to ask about what he could do to move forward and become a better leader for next season.

The good news for the Irish is that the deer-in-the-headlights phase appears to be over for several players, notably Stewart at right guard and Turkovich at left tackle, where he beat out Duncan during training camp. The right-to-left lineup will feature Young back at his preferred right tackle spot, Stewart, Wegner, Olson, and Turkovich, with good depth coming in Duncan, freshman Trevor Robinson, as well as Romine and Taylor Dever. Having able-bodied players, all of whom made a conscious effort to get bigger and stronger in the offseason, can only help the cause. But every great insurrection needs a fiery leader. Even if the '05/'06 unit didn't necessarily have a Jeff Faine or Aaron Taylor along the line, they still had outspoken, no-excuses types who paced an Irish offense that proved veteran players could work in Weis' NFL attack.

Has the offensive line found its leader? I suppose the short answer to that is, "They better have" and the long answer, "They better have, but who the hell can say?" A lot of things we've already discussed in this preseason - stronger running game, smarter Clausen, the development of Mike Haywood - will be inexorably linked to how the line performs, and how the line performs will depend on if somebody steps into that void and says, "No more." The answers to those questions starting this Saturday at 3:30 eastern.


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