The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Football: Irish need muscle on front lines

Ken Fowler | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ruben Mendoza is an imposing figure.

His upper body – calling it stout would be an understatement – screams power on top of legs that say strength.

He’s Notre Dame’s drill sergeant strength and conditioning coordinator, the one blowing whistles and demanding the Irish stay in top form.

But while he’s built of brute force, questions about Notre Dame’s linemen are understandable.

The Irish failed to dominate the line of scrimmage all season, and looked badly overmatched at times. In the off-season, the battle of the trenches might not get much talk, but results from the Irish at this week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis throw into question whether one of Notre Dame’s strategies is hurting the Irish.

Defensive end Victor Abiamiri, known in South Bend and his native Baltimore as a physical freak, benched 225 pounds 25 times – far from spectacular for a defensive lineman. Michigan’s Alan Branch and Arkansas’ Keith Jackson – no relation – managed 33 reps. Joe Cohen from Florida put the bar up 34 times.

But the nation’ most feared defensive end, UCLA’s Justin Hickman, did 23 reps of 225.

Maybe the bench isn’t the be-all, end-all.

Let’s look a little closer.

Along with Hickman, who was listed at 263 pounds – seven less than Abiamiri – UCLA had Kevin Brown (293 pounds) and Brigham Harwell (286) as its starting tackles. By comparison, former Irish defensive tackle Derek Landri was listed at 277, while fellow tackle Trevor Laws is at 283. On the inside, Notre Dame gave up 10 more pounds per player than did UCLA, and the lighter Hickman benefited.

To be fair, Landri clocked in with 24 reps at 225, beating only five of 20 competitors in his group. And yet, Landri had a year that deserved All-America consideration. He finished with 15.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Hardly a result of too little muscle mass, right?

Well, not quite.

Landri benefited from the defense’s inability to get the opponent off the field. He had extra plays on which to bring down running backs behind the line because, all too often, the opposition would tear through the Irish defense on the next play and mitigate any prior defensive stop.

A large part of Notre Dame’s failure to stop offenses was the lack of a pass rush, and the relative lightness of the Irish defensive line was an unfortunate compounding factor. Against Michigan State’s spread offense, the Irish offensive line barely outweighed the Spartans defensive line by 10 pounds per player. On the flip side, Michigan State held a 30-pound edge per lineman when the Spartans were on offense.

It’s no wonder the Irish couldn’t control the line of scrimmage or get a running game going that wet September night.

The question then is, what’s the proper formula?

The defensive unit needs to be fast on the ends and big in the middle. With the implementation of the 3-4 personnel, it’s only fair to wait and see how the conditioning staff deals with the new configuration.

But the offensive line needs to get bigger.

Ryan Harris was an All-America candidate and Notre Dame’s most effective man on the offensive line, according to Irish coach Charlie Weis. Yet he didn’t meet the hype, not by a mile.

Harris, who weighed in over 300 pounds, did 22 reps of 225 this week, while fellow former Irish lineman Dan Santucci did 23.

While they weren’t at the bottom, neither came close to the top end of the offensive linemen in the drill.

Both Harris and Santucci, along with fifth-year applicant John Sullivan, were recruited for Tyrone Willingham’s “West Coast” offense. The formula then might have been for smaller, faster offensive linemen. But it sure hasn’t worked in the pro-style sets Charlie Weis runs. The Irish offensive line got beat all season in 2006, and beat badly.

If it wants to be successful in 2007, Notre Dame must control the line of scrimmage. No first-year starting quarterback, no matter how good, can be expected to operate to any level close to what Brady Quinn did behind the porous 2006 offensive line.

The starters need to be physical and strong. Fast is good, but it’s tough to run screens when you can’t run up the gut.

So if this week is the impetus for any revelation, it should be this one: It’s time to bulk up.