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Football: Six pieces of the puzzle

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, April 18, 2008

When Notre Dame football players walk into the Isban Auditorium in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for interviews, they normally walk in individually, one at a time. When the offensive line came through the door Wednesday night, all six arrived at once, and sat in a row awaiting reporters.This is all part of Irish coach Charlie Weis’ plan: The linemen are a unit on the field and are treated like one off of it. But Weis didn’t have to institute this plan; the linemen already do everything together anyways.

Together as oneThe offensive linemen are a self-proclaimed tight-knit group, on and off the field.Guard Mike Turkovich said they hang out together outside of practice and go out to eat together. They even have their lockers close together in the Irish locker room. Center Dan Wenger said playing and fraternizing with his linemates has been great so far this spring.”We’re having a lot more fun, we’re understanding what each other is doing, we’re playing as a unit,” he said.This camaraderie mostly manifests itself when the team travels as a group to Bruno’s Pizza after most practices. Wenger said the topic of conversation is always the same.”The food on the table, pretty much just ‘Pass it here,'” he said.Guard Eric Olsen agreed.”There’s no talking because everyone’s so hungry that we pretty much just chow down,” he said.These dinners are not a tradition for Irish linemen; in fact, it’s just six close friends enjoying a meal together. The only difference is the amount of food they eat.Olsen said the group has killed a good number of buffets in the their time there. Wenger said the six of them could handle two or three pizzas, but when he learned right tackle Sam Young said guard Chris Stewart eats two or three 20-inch pizzas on his own even on a diet, Wenger changed his story.”Oh, I didn’t realize Chris was coming,” Wenger joked.Jokes like these are near constant among the linemen, and no one is spared. Stewart’s thing is that he eats too much.Wenger gets picked on for his “love handles,” Young said. Olsen looks either like a sheepdog or Barf, the half-man, half-dog from “Spaceballs.” Turkovich mumbles when he talks. Tackle Paul Duncan has a thick Southern accent. And Young himself?”I look like Big Bird. Or Larry Bird. Or a bird,” he said.

Irish eyes are smilingFor the linemen, their closeness off the field has only strengthened their performance so far in practice.One of the most intense parts of the Irish spring practice has been the Irish Eyes drill, a modified Oklahoma pitting one offensive lineman with a running back against one defensive lineman or linebacker. The drill has sparked some fights in practice, mostly involving the offensive line.Turkovich said it is important to do well during Irish Eyes because everyone is watching one person at a time.”All eyes are on you. If you don’t win, everybody sees you getting your butt beat. If you win, it’s great, it’s intense,” he said.Turkovich took credit for starting a fight earlier in the spring during this drill, saying it felt great to be in that kind of environment. Fights are not the norm in the drill, but they are not uncommon. Young said Duncan gets into the most fights during practice, but that most of them are 15 yards away from the ball.”That’s how far I push them,” Duncan said in his defense.Olsen picked on Duncan’s response to most fights, claiming he tries to avoid them by running from the fight because he “forgot his helmet.”Young agreed, saying that, even though Duncan fights often, they consist of just a single shove.”Sometimes he just comes over and says, ‘Hey man, I’m gonna start a fight,'” said Young, imitating Duncan’s Southern drawl.But the linemen said they enjoyed the new intense practices, especially the fights.”I personally think it’s fun,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of nice. It’s an aggressive sport, so to get out aggression with a guy we’re always playing with an having fun with, so I think it’s fine.”

Pumping ironDuring the offseason, Weis said one of the goals for most of the team was to build muscle – and especially with the offensive line.The line got to work immediately in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Reuben Mendoza to get stronger – and the results were apparent when the football team announced their new weights earlier this spring.Young bulked up from 315 lbs. to 330 lbs., Wenger added 18 pounds to move up to 300 and Duncan moved from 292 to 308.Even though Olsen only added three pounds since last fall (up to 303 lbs.), Wenger said he was impressed with Olsen’s performance in the weight room.”Pretty much Olsen was a beast,” said Wenger, after some coaching from Olsen himself.Even though these workouts are a normal part of the winter for the team, Weis said he thought the linemen felt some accountability from last season’s debacle.”It all starts with the fact that this is a prideful group that is embarrassed by how we played last year. If you’re not embarrassed, you’re not going to get any better,” Weis said. “First of all you have to identify if you are part of the problem. Then you have to decide what you are going to do to go about fixing it.”The players themselves agreed, saying they took accountability for working to improve in the weight room.”We’re on a mission. We got embarrassed last year and nobody wants that to happen again,” Olsen said. Weis said the players need to take control of the team, and Olsen said the lifting is just one example of how this is true with the linemen.”This is our O-line now. This is our offense,” Olsen said. “That kind of pride really pushes us to be the best we can be.”Olsen said this attitude kicked in early in the season, but that everyone realized what improvement would take. Stewart said the line did mostly “strength and power specific drills” during the offseason under Mendoza’s plan.”Some of had to do a little more cardio than others,” said Stewart, referencing the diet Mendoza put him on.

Even though building team chemistry is important, winning is always the most important metric for a football team. And the offensive line is an integral part of that.So what do the linemen see themselves blocking like next year?”Eric Olsen’s clogged arteries,” Stewart said.”Animals,” Turkovich said.”Chris Stewart when someone goes after his food,” Wenger said.But Olsen had a more serious shot.”Tough, nasty, mean offensive line we’ve always been,” he said.