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Big men on campus

Justin Schuver | Friday, September 3, 2004

If you look up statistics for a football team, you’ll find the usual suspects – “touchdowns,” “receiving yards,” “tackles.”What you usually won’t find are the statistics for the offensive linemen, unless you dig rather deep. Stats like “grading percentage” and “pancake blocks” just don’t quite give that same exciting buzz that comes from reading about a flashy wide receiver with three touchdowns on the day, or a barreling running back who amassed 200 yards.At the same time, linemen are among the first to be blamed when things go wrong and the ones who almost never receive the credit when things go right. When a running back has a career day, it’s because he has “superior talent.” When that same running back has a letdown the next weekend, it’s because of “shoddy blocking.” Playing the line is a thankless job at times, but someone has to do it.

Scrutinized and criticizedAfter a 5-7 season in 2003, many of the Irish faithful placed the brunt of the blame on the offensive line.At the start of the year, only then-senior Sean Milligan came into the season as a returning starter. That experience went out the window pretty quickly, after Milligan was injured against Michigan and did not play the rest of the season.The injury to the line’s only senior and leader took its toll on the Irish, who were forced to field players who had very little previous playing experience. That situation, combined with a freshman quarterback in Brady Quinn who was still learning the offense, resulted in a season ripe for disaster.Senior Dan Stevenson – also injured for two games during the 2003 season – felt a lot of the criticism was unfairly placed on the offensive front.”As far as the criticism last year, that just comes with the territory,” Stevenson said. “I’ve played offensive line my whole life and even in high school, I’ve experienced that when anything goes wrong it’s the offensive line’s fault, and whenever anything goes good it’s somebody else who gets the credit.”Those same growing pains and disappointment from last year might just be a real positive for the team this season. The Irish return four of their five starters from last season’s final game against Syracuse – Stevenson, Bob Morton, Mark LeVoir and Ryan Harris.”I think last year there was great fear because there was absolutely zero experience,” offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick said. “I think with this group, you have a veteran group up there, they’ve been through the wars together, you’ve been with them, you know how they respond to different situations, to stress levels. I think they are much more poised, they’re probably a lot more physical and they’re much more confident.”

Experience meets potentialThe one member of the 2004 offensive line who is not a returning starter might have the most important job of all. As the center, sophomore John Sullivan’s first job is to snap the ball to the Irish quarterback.Then, he has just a split-second to get back in blocking position. The idea of a rookie coming into such an important role might seem like a recipe for trouble, but the Irish coaches don’t think of Sullivan as just any rookie.”I’m hopeful that at some point there will be some very favorable comparisons to John Sullivan and [former Irish center and current Cleveland Browns center] Jeff Faine,” Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham said. “Hopefully we can research that point by the time John is a senior; that he will look very much like Jeff in terms of aggressive play that he brings to the game.”Sullivan is a physical specimen at 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, who came to the Irish with a lot of hype and now has the opportunity to try and prove some of that hype.A Parade All-American, Sullivan was ranked as a top 100 player in the country by several lists, including ESPN.com and CBSSportsline.com. The winner of the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Connecticut, Sullivan signed with the Irish in 2003 and did not play his freshman season.After watching Sullivan in spring practice and fall camp, his teammates say he is ready to step on the field right now.”He steps in just as well as any other offensive lineman,” Quinn said.With Sullivan and up-and-coming players like Harris – who saw playing time as a true freshman last year – the Irish have several young linemen with the potential to become eventual superstars.

Mixing and matchingWhile the offensive line comes into 2004 with much more experience than last year, most of the starters will find themselves in different positions than they played last year.LeVoir moves from left guard in 2003 to starting right tackle in 2004, and Bob Morton makes room for Sullivan at center by moving over to play left guard. Ryan Harris, who started right tackle last season, will move over to left tackle this year.The shuffling of the line is just a normal part of an evolving football team, according to the Irish coaching staff.”First of all, having Mark [LeVoir] be able to make that move has allowed us to get better players on the field and position him so that he is now a very worldly football player in terms of the entire offensive line,” Willingham said. “Now he understands the experience at guard, he understands how that relates to Dan Stevenson, who will be playing next to him.”So, you have a better player based on having two positions under his belt, as compared to having just one.”The linemen don’t seem to mind the changes too much, either.”[Changing positions] is really just a comfort thing,” Stevenson said of Harris’ move the other line shuffling this season. “Once you get used to it, it’s not such a big problem. I’m confident that we’ll all be able to do good things this year because we’re all on the same page now.”