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DAN STEVENSON: Always aware

Mike Gilloon | Friday, November 18, 2005

As a high school freshman in Barrington, Ill. outside of Chicago, Dan Stevenson made a decision that his teammates still kid him about today, a decision not typical for a nearly 300-pound offensive lineman. He went out for the junior varsity volleyball team, a sport that is relatively popular in the Chicago area.

“It’s a fun sport to me,” Stevenson said. “The guys on the team give me a hard time about it a little bit. We played sand volleyball in the summers … I just saw the opportunity to do it and a bunch of my buddies and I went out. We just had a good time … I don’t know how much I took away from it.”

But looking at Stevenson’s play, some of the quickness and nimble feet needed for volleyball might have rubbed off on him. He is a powerful, blasting blocker and makes a particular impact on sweeps and traps when he pulls to block a defensive end or linebacker.

Stevenson has started 32 games in his career – the second most experienced lineman after senior tackle Mark LeVoir. His play this year has helped Notre Dame to one of the finest offensive seasons in school history – as the Irish are averaging almost 39 points per game and have totaled 4,297 yards of offense.

Much of his improvement Stevenson said is due to playing with the same unit for several seasons, but a lot of it can also be attributed to first-year Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Latina.

“The coaching staff … did a great job of motivating me and motivating the rest of the team,” Stevenson said. “But obviously the experience helps, it’s something you can’t coach. I think over the years I’ve built my game up and these new coaches have definitely had a huge impact. I think hopefully people will say the offensive line was one of the strengths this year.”

“Going out with a bang”

He seems relieved in a way that Irish head coach Charlie Weis was hired during the off-season and has the Irish back in the top 10. Stevenson knew he and his teammates had a lot of talent and he’s ecstatic his final year at Notre Dame has worked out successfully.

“There’s no better feeling than going out with a bang,” he said. “Luckily Coach Weis came in and we were able to put this season together. We knew we had a good team. It was just a matter of putting the pieces together.

“Hopefully with two more games and the bowl game we can keep building on it. But [this season’s success] really helps ease the bumps the older guys have taken over the years.”

As he alluded, the situation hasn’t always been so rosy for Stevenson. Playing under former coaches Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and, for less than a week, George O’Leary, during his time at Notre Dame, has been difficult since he left Barrington High School as the No. 1 rated offensive lineman in the Midwest and a Parade All-American.

“It hasn’t turned out the way I expected when I came here,” Stevenson said. “It’s been a pretty wild ride with three and a half different coaches – there aren’t many people who can say they’ve done that. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

“They’ve always been there for me”

He made his first start in the 2003 Gator Bowl at tackle in place of the injured Brennan Curtin after logging 82:23 of playing time in the 2002 season as one of the most active reserve lineman.

Stevenson used the momentum of his bowl game start to crack into the starting lineup at right guard to begin 2003, a season highlighted by a game against Pittsburgh in which former Notre Dame running back Julius Jones rushed for a school-record 262 yards. Injured in the 37-0 Irish loss to Florida State that season, Stevenson did not play in games against Brigham Young and Navy.

He firmly entrenched himself in the starting lineup in 2004, starting all 12 games and clearing the way for Irish running back Darius Walker’s freshman record 786 rushing yards last season.

Throughout his extensive playing time at Notre Dame, Stevenson is thankful for the support of his father, who played for the University of Missouri and in the National Football League for the Detroit Lions, and his brothers Tony and Joey who suited up for Arizona State and Arizona Western, respectively.

“It’s nice to always have somebody that’s been there, that’s played [college football],” Stevenson said. “They can give me advice when I’m down and humble me when I’m high. They’ve always been there for me and that’s something that’s definitely helped me through this process.”

Of course growing up as one of six children with a father who played pro football, Stevenson said the sport just came naturally to him.

“It was never something my parents really made me do,” he said. “But it’s something that I fell in love with the first time I stepped on the field.”

“It hasn’t hit me yet”

Stevenson will probably have another opportunity to strap on a pair of shoulder pads after the Irish season ends. But he isn’t quite ready to talk about the end of his time at Notre Dame.

“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet, playing my last home game in that stadium,” he said. “I think it’s one of those things that doesn’t really hit you until you’re gone and you look back on all your memories. Right now I think there’s just too much for us to finish. We have a game ahead of us that we can’t look past. There’s no time to worry about myself and wallow in my own self pity.”

When asked what he will remember most fondly about the school and team he devoted five years of his life to, Stevenson didn’t talk about the near-upset of No. 1 USC this season or the 262 yards Jones ran for against Pittsburgh in 2003.

What he will remember most are the times spent laughing and goofing around with his teammates.

“Just messing around in the lockerroom, the buses, the hotels … it’s things like that I’m going to miss,” he said. “I don’t know how you can make a closer bond with a group of guys. The relationships I’ve built with my teammates are what I will miss the most.”