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Offense making strides after struggles last year

Heather VanHoegarden | Thursday, April 15, 2004

After a disappointing season on offense, the Irish are confident this fall will foster bigger and better things. The Irish return eight starters, including four on the offensive line that will protect second-year quarterback Brady Quinn. With one year of college football and nine starts under his belt, Quinn looks to lead an offense that hopes to improve on its 20.2 points per game average in 2003 – the second year running Tyrone Willingham’s pro-style offense.”We’re working on a lot of different things right now and trying to come together as an offense,” Quinn said. “We understand one another, after playing together for one year.”I feel like we’ve come together a lot more. I think that’s one of the most important things.”At practice, Quinn has been able to put together promising drives. Last week, Quinn led the offense in a seven-on-seven drill. He drove the team down the field, scoring on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Collins.Quinn also took his offense 73 yards with three completions to Billy Palmer (16 yards) Maurice Stovall (42 yards) and Carlyle Holiday (15 yards). The final toss was good for a touchdown.Quinn will be joined in the backfield by rising senior Ryan Grant. Grant, who was a 1,000 -yard rusher in 2002, saw his yards diminish last year with the addition of running back Julius Jones. Grant ran for just 510 yards in 2003, but he feels that this year everyone is more familiar with the offense, and that will be beneficial.”Knowing the offense makes it easier so that when I get out there I’m not thinking about what I’m doing,” Grant said. “I think a lot of guys have an idea of what the offense is based around, and that helps so much. When you are going out there, you know what you’re doing and now you just play the game.”Grant has also seen early success this spring. Last week, he broke a 31-yard touchdown run to end a drive.Last year’s leading receiver Rhema McKnight agreed that everyone is finally becoming comfortable with the offense after two seasons.”Things are a lot easier,” McKnight said. “I don’t have to worry so much about where I’m going to be, because I know where I’m going to be. I’m just out there being an athlete and trying to make big plays.”The offense will have to improve if the Irish want to build on last year’s 5-7 campaign. They averaged 336.3 yards per game, and scored 23 touchdowns – 13 on the ground and 10 via the air. But the Irish aren’t looking back, as they see bright things for their offense in the fall if they keep working this spring.”I think the difference from this spring to last spring is that we’re a lot more experienced,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “I think from an overall standpoint, we’re so much farther ahead than we have been from the spring previous. I think our execution is getting closer. But as a coach, you are always looking for the little things that make the difference between you guys being a consistent play after play type team, and we still have a ways to go before we’re there.”Even if Notre Dame hasn’t completed everything perfectly just yet, they all agree on one thing – they are farther than they were last year at this time.”It’s so much different, because a year ago at this time, you were looking for 11 guys you could put out there and term as your starters,” Diedrick said. “What you’re looking for this year is consistent play, guys that are going to jump and be the starter, and you’re also looking for what roles guys are going to play.”Grant also recognized the difference.”We’re doing more as an offense, and we’re getting the backs involved more,” Grant said. “We’re doing more in the passing game, we’re more versatile. Every year I think you’re going to see that more and more as more guys become more comfortable with [the offense].”McKnight, who had 47 receptions for 600 yards and three touchdowns last season, said even he felt better now than last spring.”As time goes on, you get more comfortable and more knowledgeable about what you’re doing out there on the field,” he said. “I feel real confident about what we’re doing right now. We will improve on what we did last year. Everybody’s feeling real confident.”