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Youthful offensive line begins to gain confidence

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, October 7, 2010

In Brian Kelly’s spread offense, the quarterback repeatedly hears he needs to get rid of the ball quickly. But no matter how quickly Irish quarterback Dayne Crist releases the football, his offensive line needs to give him enough time to do so.

In the first few games of the season, especially during the 37-14 loss to Stanford, Crist was pressured more often than Kelly would have liked, and both the Irish passing and rushing attacks suffered.

Against Boston College, the Irish offensive line consistently gave Crist time to throw and to run the Irish offense. Notre Dame needed those few games of adjustment because three of the five starting linemen were starting their first game against Purdue, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.

“During summer camp, when talking about our youth, how these guys had never taken a snap, now all of a sudden these guys have over 300 plays,” Molnar said. “I just think that the continuity helped. Really, up until Saturday the same five guys virtually took every single rep at the same position. So they got a ton of work. … They’ve played half a season. They are quickly becoming veterans.”

Sophomore tackle Zack Martin, junior center Braxston Cave and senior tackle Taylor Dever all started their first game against Purdue, with only fifth-year guard Chris Stewart and junior guard Trevor Robinson holding experience on the line.

Nonetheless, each of those three first-timers has progressed as their confidence grew.

“Definitely every game your confidence is going to grow,” Martin said. “Confidence from your teammates and coaches. Each game you feel a bit more comfortable in there.”

The youngest of the three, Martin, has particularly impressed Kelly as he has learned on the fly, confronting new defensive looks and challenges in each game.

“There are things happening each week that he has never seen before,” Kelly said in his Tuesday press conference. “When you look at Zack Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees new things and maybe doesn’t handle it like a veteran starter, but those things that he has encountered already, he’s playing at a high level. He’s grading out as our top lineman at this point.”

Of the three offensive line newcomers, the one with the most responsibility, and pressure, has been Cave. He holds the job of identifying defensive looks and blitzes, as well as matching Crist’s cadence and snap count. Against Stanford, Cave said he did not do an adequate job at these tasks, and it cost the Irish.

“It was just the fact of holding onto [the ball] when I needed to so Dayne could see the blitzes coming,” Cave said. “In the Stanford game I didn’t do a good job of that. They were timing things up well. We just switched it up and worked on it every day in practice.”

Those growing pains have receded as Cave has gained more and more experience, in those 300 snaps, offensive line coach Ed Warriner said.

“Playing experience. Just being able to play, watching film, that has led to maturation in playing that position”

Against Boston College, Cave missed a handful of snaps after rolling his ankle. In his place stepped junior Mike Golic, Jr. Golic is also the back-up at right guard, behind Robinson.

“[Backing up two positions] helps me more than anything else,” Golic said. “Knowing what I have to do at guard helps me know what I’m doing at center by knowing what the guy on either side of me is thinking.”

That level of comfort showed in his few snaps Saturday.

“There wasn’t a big drop-off [between Cave and Golic],” Molnar said. “I’d say in the last five or six weeks, we’ve been commenting on how Mike has been getting a better understanding of the offense and being more physical.”

That confidence and depth will be necessary against Pittsburgh, a foe Kelly has faced each of the past three seasons.

“It’s a tough, physical defense, and again, they can do some very good things with their front four,” Kelly said of the Panthers. “They give great pressure on the quarterback with their front four.”

Fortunately for Kelly, the confidence his offensive line has gained has inspired some confidence in him.

“I feel pretty good at the offensive line,” Kelly said.