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Playing by the rules

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, August 21, 2003

Greg Olsen arrived on campus two weeks ago, carrying plenty of advice on what to expect in fall football camp from his older brother Chris.

But when Chris – now a sophomore backup quarterback – came to Notre Dame last fall, he and the rest of his freshman class practiced for three days before the rest of the team arrived.

During that time, the elder Olsen had a handful of practices where he could attempt to digest the 400-plus-page playbook before getting thrown into the fire and toward the bottom of the depth chart.

His younger brother, a tight end, did not have that luxury.

A series of NCAA rule changes designed to prevent heat-related problems involving athletes went into effect this year. While most of the changes dealt with the amount of time a team can spend practicing in a day and the number of two-a-day practices that can be held, one clause removed the traditional orientation period for freshmen football players.

So when Greg Olsen and the other 21 freshmen first stepped onto a practice field Aug. 4 wearing a gold helmet, they were joined by their upperclass teammates – each of whom had a much better understanding of how Notre Dame football worked.

“Your adrenaline was kind of pumping because you were thrown in there with the other guys, and it was like it was going 90 miles an hour, just trying to figure out where you were supposed to line up that first day,” Olsen said. “It was kind of hectic, but it was also exciting at the same time.”

Irish coach Tyrone Willingham has adopted a wait-and-see approach before voicing an opinion on the new practice regulations.

But he acknowledged that the new rules hamper freshmen participation in practices and make it tougher for them to play snaps in practice.

“At least before, there was a part where they had a chance to improve themselves on their own before the rest of the team arrived,” Willingham said. “Now, you don’t have a chance to gain some of that confidence.”

The NCAA did allow for teams to hold one three-hour practice for freshmen separate from the rest of the team – a far cry from the four practices previous freshmen enjoyed.

But in trademark Willingham fashion, the Irish coach believes the adversity the current crop of freshmen faces may become advantageous in the future.

“They have to rise from the bottom to the top, and that’s not a bad thing,” Willingham said. “They have a chance to turn a momentary negative into a positive.”

For now, however, freshmen scramble to earn time on a practice field that belongs to a team gearing up for its Sept. 6 season opener against Washington State.

Last year, only receivers Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight saw action as freshmen. A man who says the best players will play, Willingham said he expects some freshmen will see playing time this fall, but he’s reluctant to discuss specific players.

Still, the Irish have a talented crop of recruits entering Notre Dame this fall. Olsen was one of the nation’s most sought-after tight end recruits and Dublin, Ohio, quarterback Brady Quinn was ranked 20th on ESPN’s list of the top 100 national recruits.

Other freshmen who could see some playing time this year include defensive linemen Victor Abiamiri and Trevor Laws and defensive backs Freddie Parish and Tom Zbikowski.

“It’s tough for every freshmen coming in, no matter where you go and what you’re like coming in here,” Olsen said. “It’s a whole different game from high school, from the speed to the size of the guys to the complexity of the offense.

“It’s just a lot different from the high school ranks.”