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Making the first push

Chris Federico | Thursday, October 16, 2003

Notre Dame running back Julius Jones’ record-breaking 262-yard game was more than just an outstanding performance by the Irish running back. In fact, it was due largely to the play of the Irish offensive line, which for the first time Saturday saw significant success in moving opposing defenses off the line.

One key member of that line was freshman Ryan Harris, playing in his first collegiate game. The right tackle was a big part of Notre Dame’s success running the ball against the Panthers.

“He performed very well. I think to put a freshman in his first start in that situation against a highly ranked team, I think he performed very well,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “But again, he still has a lot of room to go, and he would be the first to say that.”

In fact, Harris has been the first to say just that, and he has been hasty to give himself too much credit for his performance and the performance of the offensive line last Saturday.

“I feel like I played okay – nowhere near what I’m happy with, and I feel I can do a lot better, and I will get a lot better,” Harris said. “It was my first game, and I feel I did okay. There is definitely room for improvement, and it will happen.”

But even the fact that Harris could come in as a freshman and start along the offensive line – a position that requires both physical and mental maturity – is a testament to the youngster’s ability.

“He really has done a great job of developing. It was a process that started even back in fall camp,” offensive line coach Mike Denbrock said. “He came in here with a special ability and showed a lot of maturity for a young guy.”

The biggest question about Harris at the beginning of the season had been his lack of size. Harris entered the year listed at 6-foot-5, 270-pounds, which is a little undersized for a Division I tackle.

“The thing we worried about was that here’s a guy that reported at 270 pounds,” Denbrock said. “Can he hold up? Can he do it and be consistent and do the things you need him to do?”

But the Irish coaches have been more than pleased with Harris’ progress and growth in the early part of the season. Even trying to manage a class schedule and the rigors of college life, the freshman has added nearly 15 pounds and worked his way into the Irish system.

“He added almost 15 pounds over the course of the first three weeks of the season,” Denbrock said. “He continued to develop and grow and got in there with the good, big boys and mixed it up and held his own and did some really good things.”

Denbrock, who shares offensive line coaching duties with John McDonell but specializes in tackles and tight ends, is optimistic about Harris’ future with the Irish and his potential for growth.

“I look at him now, and you take a guy that’s going through what he’s going through and he’s still been able to gain 10 or 15 pounds as a freshman while he’s been on campus here,” Denbrock said. “What’s he going to be able to do over the course of the winter working with [strength and conditioning] Coach [Mickey] Marotti with that great program in the weight room? I think he’s going to be much bigger than he is right now.”

Saturday, Harris and the rest of the offensive line will face a demanding task going against a very talented Trojan defensive line. The front four of defensive ends Kenechi Udeze and Omar Nazel and defensive tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson bring an impressive combination of speed, strength and size to the line of scrimmage.

“They have absolutely outstanding guys up front, not only athletically,” Denbrock said. “They can beat you with their speed and their quickness. They can also overpower you. That’s a pretty lethal combination when you put those guys together that have that ability.”

But Denbrock says he isn’t worried that Harris’ youth or lack of playing experience will cost the Irish against USC. Instead, he feels Harris’ strength and technique will help him to be successful against the Trojans.

“I think the thing that Ryan has done that really helped him is that he knows how to play with leverage, and he knows how to bend,” he said. “I can guarantee you that Ryan Harris leg presses a lot more than anybody on their defensive line weighs. Using your legs and blocking the right way, those things take care of themselves.”