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Jim Molinaro: A change for the better

Matt Lozar | Thursday, November 13, 2003

If the change in coaching staffs two years ago was good to anyone, that person would be Jim Molinaro.He came to Notre Dame as a defensive lineman, thinking he could get on the field faster than if he had gone to other schools who wanted him as an offensive player.But for two years, Molinaro was stuck behind current NFL players Grant Irons and Anthony Weaver and current starters Darrell Campbell and Cedric Hilliard. Then, coaches from the former regime approached Molinaro with an intriguing situation.”They came up to me and asked him if he wanted to do it,” he said. “I talked to the defensive coach, he’s like it’s your decision. I think you would be better off as a lineman.”While current head coach Tyrone Willingham and his staff didn’t suggest this idea, they went along with it upon arriving at Notre Dame.What the coaches saw in Molinaro interested them, and they allowed Molinaro to take a major risk in restarting his collegiate career.Making the transitionIn 2002, Notre Dame had an entire offensive line composed of seniors – three fifth-year players and two in their third year of eligibility. Therefore, the idea of using Molinaro’s natural abilities seemed extremely logical to build depth on a unit that really didn’t have any. But it wasn’t easy.”I think he was a guy that the transition was a little bit difficult for him,” Notre Dame offensive line coach Mike Denbrock said. “I think when we got here as a coaching staff, through the course of the first winter conditioning with the players and we looked at a guy 6-foot-6, 295-pounds at that time who could move his feet and really do some good things. That was a guy we had to try to get on the field.”Before Denbrock and the rest of the new coaching staff arrived at Notre Dame, Molinaro used 2001 as a transition year from the defense to the offense. He played on special teams, registering six tackles and saw 2 minutes, 50 seconds of playing time at right tackle against Navy.So in three years, Molinaro saw the field very little and his collegiate career was more than half finished. Therefore, the new coaching staff came in and put everybody on a clean slate. Molinaro took advantage of the new life.”I think when we got here, he kind of sparked up and saw his chances at being in the lineup improve and we were very encouraged by the things that we saw from him,” Denbrock said.The difference between offense and defense, as Molinaro found out, was as great as night and day. All that pursuit of the ball carrier on the defensive side of the ball had to be forgotten with Molinaro’s focus now on getting ready to stop the pursuit.”From offense to defense line [the difference] is huge,” Molinaro said. “The defensive line really plays on their toes while the offensive line you really have to keep a square base all the time.”While the defensive line was loaded with players ready to step in at a moment’s notice, Molinaro saw a chance on the offensive line to make contributions on the field, even if it wasn’t right away.He jumped at the opening.”I made the switch and it was an opportunity to get on the field a little bit faster. I saw with the contributions I had made, it could be the turning point of my career whether to keep playing or not,” Molinaro said. “It definitely worked out the best for me.”Thrown into the fireWith the wealth of experience on the offensive line, Molinaro had a number of teammates to look at and learn from in trying to improve his all-around game.But the players he looked at the most were the natural choices, tackles Jordan Black and Brennan Curtin.”They helped me a lot in giving me tips,” Molinaro said. Molinaro saw playing time in 2002 against Michigan State and Pittsburgh but got a big breakthrough when Black was suspended for the first half of the Rutgers game after violating a team rule. The coaches inserted Molinaro into the starting lineup at left tackle and he played well in his first career start.One week later at USC, Molinaro was forced to shift to the right side of the line and fill in for Curtin. In the team’s last game against North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl, Molinaro flip-flopped sides again and finally found a home at left tackle when both Black and Curtin were suspended for the Jan. 1 bowl game.Denbrock knew Molinaro had experienced a lot that year, especially in the team’s last two regular season games, but saw Molinaro, once again, eager at a chance to prove himself on the field.”I think it was difficult to a certain extent just because he doesn’t have a lot of experience playing up to that point at offensive tackle,” Denbrock said. “I think it was a little bit difficult on him, but I know throughout the season that he was more than ready and willing to get out there and play and contribute to our football team as much as he could. “I know he was anxious to get in there and show what he was capable of.”Meanwhile, Molinaro felt the significant playing time he saw in those last two regular season games prepared him adequately for the Gator Bowl.”It wasn’t that difficult, I already had two starts under my belt and I had been playing basically the whole year,” Molinaro said. “So it really wasn’t too big of a deal by then.”Leader by defaultFour seniors left the Notre Dame offensive line when they were selected in the 2002 NFL Draft. Therefore Molinaro was one of only two returning offensive linemen, along with Sean Milligan, on a unit being heavily questioned by a number of people heading into the 2003 season.Molinaro’s leadership, despite starting only three games coming into this year, has fulfilled Denbrock’s expectations.”He’s been tremendous,” Denbrock said. “He’s really taken those young kids and tried along with us, how to do things the right way, how to practice the right way, how to prepare themselves for a game the right way, he’s been invaluable to me trying to get those younger guys ready.”The need for Molinaro to be a leader on the line increased even more when an injury to Milligan has left him on the sidelines since the Michigan State game. That lack of experience along the line has forced the other four young linemen to look to Molinaro, who has handled all of the responsibilities in stride.He helps the younger guys in the film room and at practice explaining plays and working on perfecting technique. The evidence of his leadership is not only on the offensive line, but also on the team, as Molinaro has been named a game captain six times in 2003.But his first duty of leadership is the offensive line. “Jim is the leader of the offensive line, there’s no dispute over that. When he talks everybody listens,” offensive tackle Ryan Harris said. “He’s been real helpful in helping me come along especially when I began playing. He was really helpful in terms of helping me see the game and what’s going to happen.”Counting this season, Molinaro has started only 12 games on the offensive line in his four years of playing with the Irish. That limited time on the field has left Denbrock with a feeling Molinaro has a lot of room to grow and improve, just because he hasn’t played on offense that much.”I really think he’s a guy that when you look at home, his best football is ahead of him still,” Denbrock said. “He’s just going to continue, in my opinion, to get better and better and better as time goes on.”Spending five years at Notre Dame has seen Molinaro and the Irish reach emotional highs and lows. Prior to this year, Molinaro had two losing seasons and seasons of 10 and nine wins. Couple those four years with the disappointing 3-6 record in the first nine games of his senior year, Molinaro can only describe his college career in one way.”It’s been interesting,” he said. “It’s been a roller coaster.”