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Football: Fixing the Holes

Ken Fowler | Friday, September 21, 2007

Jimmy Clausen took a five-step drop and was swarmed by three defensive linemen and an extra blitzer. It was one second-quarter play on which the Irish offensive line collapsed and Michigan’s defense took advantage, but it was one of many.

Michigan had sent an extra man to rattle the freshman quarterback, but the added pressure was unnecessary. The Wolverines literally stood Clausen up, about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was one of eight sacks on the day, not counting the two bad snaps that went over the quarterback’s head and counted as runs, or the few times Clausen threw the ball away to avoid losing yardage.

Such has been life for Clausen in his first two collegiate starts.

Notre Dame’s offensive line, a compilation of highly touted high school stars, is last in the nation in quarterback protection. Its problems have kept Notre Dame at the bottom of the rushing yardage total and are part of the reason the Irish have not established the kind of “niche” on offense Charlie Weis has looked for.

“Sometimes you don’t really have an identity,” Weis said. “And … the identity that I’ve always dealt with, at least on the offensive side of the ball, was multiple formations and multiple personnel groups to run the same plays. That’s my stereotype. … And I think that’s really what we haven’t gotten to.”

Somehow, things will eventually turn better for Notre Dame. But they haven’t yet, a quarter of the way through Weis’ third – and most difficult – year in South Bend.

After losing three starters from the offensive line – along with quarterback Brady Quinn, running back Darius Walker and receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight – the Irish replaced their big men in the trenches with players who came to Notre Dame with confidence and hopes of playing early.

They got their wish, but the early results have been unpromising: negative net rushing yardage, 23 sacks, a pair of bad snaps, an injury and three losses.

For Notre Dame, even a collection of talented, though raw, linemen hasn’t added up to any ease in the transition.

John Sullivan was a four-star recruit as Scout.com’s No. 9 offensive lineman in the country coming out of high school in 2003. Of the line’s two true juniors, Paul Duncan was rated 22nd nationally, and Michael Turkovich 35th.

In 2006, Sam Young came in as a five-star recruit and the nation’s No. 2 high-school offensive lineman. He was joined by four-star linemen Matt Carufel (rated No. 10 in the country), Dan Wenger (No. 20), Chris Stewart (No. 43), Eric Olsen (No. 49) and Bartley Webb (No. 52).

“I think that right now, it’s almost kind of the perfect storm. You have essentially one fifth year senior O-Line guy, nobody in the true senior class, and only two in the junior class,” said Mike Frank, who runs IrishEyes, the Notre Dame recruiting Web site in the Scout.com network. “When you only have three guys in [the upper classes], that’s really the problem.”

Of the group, only Sullivan and Young are returning starters. Duncan began the season at left tackle but has since switched to right, and Turkovich has held off Olsen for the starting spot at left guard.

Where the Irish will have to make a change, though, is at right guard. Wenger, who has struggled as much as the rest of the line, is likely unavailable for several games with an unspecified leg injury.

Against Michigan, Weis used his heaviest rotation of linemen in his three years at Notre Dame.

Olsen, who looked good in practice last week, saw significant time at left guard, as did true freshman Matt Romine at left tackle. Scout.com graded Romine a four-star, top-15 guard out of high school, but he has stayed on the outside of the line.

But, Frank said, many of Notre Dame’s young players on the offensive line “probably aren’t quite ready to play both mentally and physically to play at this point.”

Among the problems evident in Notre Dame’s 0-3 start have been defenders simply overpowering Irish offensive linemen, a lack of any sustained push on running plays, and communication failures allowing blitzers to approach the quarterback untouched while linemen look for someone to block.

The team is also dealing with other personnel issues.

Duncan and Young began the season at left and right tackle, respectively, but switched positions before the Michigan game. After the game, Weis insinuated that he was trying to shield a weakness.

“I think it’s kind of a situation where Notre Dame doesn’t have what you could classify as a true left tackle,” Frank said.

Former Notre Dame offensive lineman and two-time All-American Aaron Taylor said even the most talented players need guidance and help from the veterans when they first see significant playing time.

With only three upperclassmen, and only one with significant playing time entering the season, Taylor said, Notre Dame was in a near-impossible situation.

Frank said Southern California freshman center Kris O’Dowd, who is replacing second-round NFL Draft pick Ryan Kalil, has succeeded where Notre Dame’s new starters have failed because he is playing with four other starters who have all seen significant playing time, either as starters or as backups in past years.

Taylor – who is now running the Notre Dame blog www.LegendsofSouthBend.com, which is in the process of establishing a scholarship fund with the University – played under Lou Holtz from 1990-93 and said freshmen and sophomores gained experience easily during those years by gradually increasing their roles next to experienced juniors and seniors.

But Notre Dame failed to blow out enough opponents over the last two years to give its second-string linemen the kind of game experience Taylor says separates experience from leadership.

“If there’s anything that I wish I could do, if I could wave a magic wand, [I would] bring in some seasoned, experienced veterans who have been there and done that to provide the sort of leadership they could get out of the class that just left,” Taylor said. “When you lose the types of players that you lost so rapidly and instantaneously, especially on offense, the effects are devastating.”

The biggest effect of inadequate leadership, Taylor said, can be the attitude of the team.

“A glaring difference I saw, for example, between Michigan’s O-line and our offensive line last week was, I watched [Michigan] hit to the whistle. They would fire out, they would make contact and they would sustain their blocks until the whistle – and sometimes drive guys past the pile,” Taylor said. “…What I watched with Notre Dame at times was hitting the contact and then stopping. They weren’t bringing their feet, they weren’t bringing their knees. They were hitting to the defender, they weren’t hitting through the defender.”

But in Taylor’s view, that also means the problems are only temporary – if the Irish have anything close to the talent the recruiting services indicate they do.

Taylor said the best way for the line to gain the sort of confidence it needs is to stick to simple running plays that minimize the players’ thinking and maximize brute, one-on-one physical matchups.

“What I would like to see is weekly improvement. Stripping it all the way down and taking away wins and losses and having goals about bowl games and all those things, go out and represent our University the way that she deserves,” Taylor said. “Go out and represent the student body the way that they deserve. Go out and represent the players that came before them and the players that will come after them the way that that program deserves. That’s what I would want to see, and that’s not about scoring eight touchdowns a game. …

“That’s about playing with integrity, playing with passion, playing with heart and pride. And that’s something I think has been lacking a little bit, and a lot of that has to do with youth. …

“I didn’t walk away definitively knowing whether or not it bothered them as much as I remember it bothered me when I was there,” Taylor continued. “And that oftentimes is the case when you don’t have the guys that have been there and done that for them to be able to relate to. They’ll figure it out pretty quick, and I think Charlie has taken a step in the right direction by taking it back to fundamentals.”