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Staring Down State

Michael Bryan | Friday, September 18, 2009

There’s very little Sam Young hasn’t seen in his 40 straight starts.

He was there for the comebacks against Michigan State and UCLA in 2006, and there for every painful game of 2007. He’s been a starter on a team that went to the Sugar Bowl, a team that finally broke the bowl losing streak in Hawaii and a team that tied for the worst record in school history.

So when it comes to the ups (like a blowout win over Nevada) and downs (like a heartbreaking loss on the road to Michigan) of a season, there’s hardly anyone more prepared.

“After that kind of loss, you’re upset, and it’s OK to be upset, and sometimes a good thing,” Young said. “But you have to forget about it the next day and then go back to work.”

Young has come a long way from his freshman season, a year in which he said he relied heavily on his veteran teammates. A consensus five-star recruit coming out of powerhouse high school St. Thomas Aquinas in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Young became the first true freshman to start a season on Notre Dame’s offensive line since freshman became eligible in 1972.

“There were so many guys that helped me out, on the offensive line my guy Ryan Harris, Brady [Quinn], John Sullivan and John Carlson, just a laundry list of guys,” Young said.

Teaming with future NFL linemen Harris, Dan Santucci and Sullivan, Young was named a freshman All-American for his part in protecting Quinn and opening up holes for Darius Walker. Quinn threw for more than 3,000 yards and Walker rushed for more than 1,000 in their final seasons with the Irish.

The 6-foot-8 freshman started every game of that 2006 campaign, experiencing comeback wins over the Bruins and Spartans and disappointing blowouts to rivals Michigan and USC. Those experiences now help Young as he has gained more experience and his role on the team has evolved.

“You go from the student to now I’m the teacher,” Young said. “You pass on those same things you learned from the leaders to those younger guys now.”

In Young’s sophomore year the low points far outnumbered the highs, as the team and offensive line struggled throughout a 0-5 start and 3-9 season. After graduating three seniors, the O-line gave up an NCAA high 58 sacks, including nine in the season opener against Georgia Tech and at Michigan.

The offensive line was at the center of the criticism for the Irish, and Young said it was a tough learning experience.

“You have to learn to push through adversity,” Young said. “You’ve got to go when you lose into the next week and regroup and stop the bleeding and keep plugging it. No one likes to lose.”

Young said the performance of the team and offensive line as a unit in 2007 served as a huge point of motivation for 2008.

“We had to work our rear ends off in winter conditioning, in spring ball and in the summer to improve,” Young said. “Everyone worked together to put in a lot of hours and get better.”

The offensive line certainly did improve in 2008, with Young playing a large role. The much-maligned unit allowed only 22 sacks in pass protection, although run blocking still proved to be an issue.

“As you play more and more, the game slows down a lot,” Young said. “You start seeing little keys you never saw before, tons of things you never noticed.”

Entering 2009 the Notre Dame offensive line had 100 career starts from its returning unit, tied for the most in the NCAA. Thirty-eight of those starts came from Young, who has been a leader on the deep and experienced unit.

“He obviously has so much experience on the field, he’s been around for so long,” sophomore guard Trevor Robinson said. “He has a really good ability to gather information before the snap, and the more information you have the more you expect and less likely you are to be surprised. He uses that help me out, help Eric [Olsen] and Kyle [Rudolph].”

Through two games, the experience looks to have helped Young and the offensive line finally put it all together. Against both Michigan and Nevada the line did not give up a sack, and junior running back Armando Allen has been able average 5.9 yards per carry behind improved run blocking.

“I think we’ve gotten a lot better, we’re getting close to where we want to be, but aren’t there yet,” Young said. “We as an offensive line want the team to be able to rely on us, whether it’s that short yardage play where we have to get one yard or whether it’s holding up on third and long to give Jimmy [Clausen] time. We have all the confidence in the world with Armando back there or any running back and in Jimmy, it’s just our job to make it happen.”

Entering this season one major change for Young and the offensive line was the addition of coach Frank Verducci to replace John Latina. Young said he definitely feels the line has made strides under Verducci’s tutelage and with new blocking schemes.

“He’s a technician,” Young said of Verducci in the spring. “For me that’s a really good thing because I think that’s something that I’ve been lacking is my technique. It’s something that I needed to work on. It’s a different perspective. There’s a lot of stuff he brings to the table that I haven’t heard before and a lot of the guys on the line have heard. It’s a different perspective. It’s a different way of doing things.”

Young was named to the Outland Award watch list in the offseason for the nation’s best offensive lineman, and has a great chance to set the Notre Dame record for most starts in a career. The senior said he attributes his streak of starting games and consistency to his attitude and approach to the game.

“The way I look at myself is I just try and be consistent day in and day out, whether that’s coming to work every day or playing on Saturdays. Its gone fast, freshman year it seemed like it took forever, and since then its just hit high gear and motored along,” he said.

As one of the elder statesmen on this Notre Dame team, Young is one of just a handful of players that has experienced beating a Michigan State team, the comeback victory in 2005.

“Looking back, the poise we showed at the end of the game last week, that team [in 2005] had that as well. Going into those last couple plays where it could go either way, we had ice water running through our veins,” Young said. “It’s a big game every time we play them.”

Mentally, Young said he has been impressed with how the team has responded to its first setback on the season. Coach Charlie Weis said the task of improving the effort and performance in practice was led by Young and Olsen, the senior leaders on the offensive line.

“I couldn’t be anymore happy with this team’s attitude coming into this week,” Young said. “We don’t want the coaches having to yell at us, we don’t want Eric, coach, myself, whoever, after a game to say ‘You know, we wish we had done better last week.’ That has to stop in practice, we have to correct that and that has to start from the players.”

Physically, Young said this game will be more of a challenge against a very deep and physical Spartan front.

“It’s probably the most blue-collar game on our schedule,” Young said. “There’s a few games you prepare for physically the day after – Michigan is one, Michigan State is one, USC is one, you keep some ibuprofen in your back pocket for the day after.”

Nevertheless, Young said he looks forward to playing a smash mouth game against a quality opponent.

“You know from the first play to the last play there’s going to be collisions, not just hitting but collisions, and as an offensive lineman that’s a lot of fun.”