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Irish Insider: Trench protocol

Bill Brink | Friday, October 2, 2009

Charlie Weis likes to run the ball.

“Regardless of whether you start off throwing or start off running, when you run the ball effectively, makes it easier for everything else you are doing,” he said.

So does offensive line coach Frank Verducci.

“To see [the offensive linemen] do that is a great source of pride for me to see how hard they play,” he said.

So do the linemen.

“The line loves to run block,” senior guard Chris Stewart said. “Just pushing guys back, or walking down the field on someone, there’s nothing like it.”

So do the running backs (well, duh).

“When you get an offensive lineman coming back to the huddle with a big smile on his face, it’s like, let’s run it again,” junior running back Armando Allen said. “It only gives you confidence.”

They all like to run. But for different reasons.

Charlie Weis likes…

… accountability

He said Verducci takes care of some aspects of game planning, which helps when the offensive gameplan is as complex as it has been in the past two weeks.

“I think that he’s taken a lot of the pressure off of me personally by allowing us to separate, then come together game plan wise and pull it all together,” Weis said.

Weis leads a team that averages 158 yards per game on the ground and 4.2 yards per carry. Last year the team averaged 109 yards per game, only 3.3 per carry.

After rushing for 585 yards and three touchdowns last year, Allen has rushed for 326 and three scores in four games this year.

“The offensive line gets all the credit,” Allen said. “It’s amazing to see those guys out there having fun.”

Verducci, Weis said, challenges the linemen as individuals, but he’s seen them become a cohesive group.

“It’s an interesting approach that I’ve seen before, but I think it puts accountability on each one of these players where they know that it’s not just how they play, but it’s how all five of them play,” Weis said.

Frank Verducci likes…

… leaving the hoop where it is.

Verducci has been an offensive line coach since 1992, when he coached at Iowa. He coached the offensive line in the NFL for the Bengals, Cowboys, Colts and Browns before taking over as Notre Dame’s offensive line coach in January. He’s been around long enough to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“There are a lot of different ways to do it,” he said. “I have my way.”

Nothing he teaches his players is original. Everything he uses, he said, he took from someone he worked with whom he respects. He asked the players to buy into it, which they did, and the results increased confidence in the scheme.

“Once they’re successful at it, it becomes a lot easier,” he said.

Verducci had the benefit of a clean slate. He didn’t have the interaction with the program on a day-to-day basis before arriving at Notre Dame. To him, every player was capable of performing to his expectations.

“This is all I know,” he said. “There’s a way to play the game, there’s a standard that’s put on it, that’s how we’re gonna play. And the credit goes to the guys because they’ve accepted it, they’ve bought into it.”

Verducci said he sees week-to-week improvement in the linemen. But some aspects of the game can be solid one week and non-existent the next. As long as his players put in the effort, he said he can iron out technical inconsistencies.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges as a coach,” he said. “To not ever say, okay, we’ve got it. We’ve arrived. But to always try to keep those things sharp and not neglect those things that will come back to bite you a couple weeks down the road.”

“Coach has this little saying. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try and be perfect,” senior tackle Sam Young said. “I think that kind of really points out what we’re trying to do.”

The skill-related parts of playing on the line outweigh physical strength by leaps and bounds. Verducci said tackle Joe Thomas of the Browns wasn’t an overly strong guy, but his balance and functional strength made him an all-pro left tackle.

“I’m always amused when they throw all these bench press numbers up there,” Verducci said. “Even when I was in the NFL we’d go to the combine and there’d be these guys that, all of a sudden, would be a shock because they’d be first-round picks but they’d get in there and bench-press 225 18 times and everyone would be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s a weakling.’

“But they had such functional strength and such technique that they’d be good ballplayers.”

So how do you drill those technical skills into the players? Do it the same way all the time.

“They like routine. They like to jump through the same hoops every day,” Verducci said. “So don’t move the hoop.”

Offensive linemen like…

… doing the splits.

The transformation of the offensive line started during spring ball. None of them can pinpoint how or why, but they know that at some point they clicked.

“When the plays start clicking, you don’t’ really know it, all of a sudden it’s just there, senior tackle Paul Duncan said.

They weren’t the only ones who noticed. Allen said he noticed a different offensive line this spring than the one he had run behind the past two years.

“Those guys worked hard in the weight room, whether it was running or lifting weights,” Allen said. “When spring came around they kind of became more of a unit.”

They said the success came because of a combination of hard work, Verducci’s influence and players rededicating themselves to the program. That work in the spring carried over into individual summer workouts, where the linemen took it upon themselves to maintain what they had gained. They took home film, both of themselves in spring ball and of Nevada, to prepare for the season.

“The difference is the mindset,” Stewart said. “I understand what needs to be done for certain things to happen. So for us to be a better team, maybe I need to run extra on my off day or get back to school earlier and train with the training staff.”

The mental difference, Stewart said, translated to physical gains.

“You have a mental realization to know that I have to go above and beyond what I’ve done in the past,” he said.

So now, in season, the line and the running game are reaping the rewards of that work.

“You can just see it coming, taking that next step,” Duncan said. “That’s where we’re right now, taking that next step, because it’s rolling for us.”

And for Duncan, Stewart, Young and center Eric Olsen, all seniors, they’ve been around long enough to understand what it’s like when the line works in sync. Stewart said he feels like the line works like the senior line did when he as a freshman. And adversity, he said, breeds strength.

“We’ve driven the ball 60 yards late in the game,” he said. “God forbid, the next time it has to happen, we’ve been there before. It can be done.”

The linemen are simpatico of the field too. Stewart grabbed a TV reporter’s microphone to ask Young a couple of questions of his own regarding what goes on in the locker room.

“It’s really nice,” Young deadpans. “There’s TVs, you know, there’s … chairs, clothes … if there’s a fun fact it’s that you” – he pointed a Stewart – “can do a split.”

That was it for Stewart, who backed away and returned the microphone. “Cut.”

Armando Allen likes…

… steak and potatoes.

The beneficiary of all this is Allen, who has broken out this season as a much more powerful runner than in the past. But it’s not all due to the linemen.

“I changed a lot of things. I think I prepared myself mentally a lot more than I did freshman and sophomore year,” he said.

Allen lifted and ate healthily to put on 10 pounds of muscle. His go-to meal?

“Strictly steak and potatoes,” he said. “That was my specialty. Just two big steaks and two potatoes. I like it plain.”

But it’s not just him and the O-line. The athletes involved in the passing game, Allen said, keep the defense on its heels so the backs can rack up yardage.

“The great quarterbacks and receivers that we have allows us to run the ball because some people re paying attention to the pass more than they pay attention to the run,” he said.

Like any smart running back, though, Allen gave it up for the hosses up front, the reason behind this transformation, the beneficiary of Verducci’s coaching, their own hard work and Weis, Jimmy Clausen and the receivers creating such a passing threat.

“They really felt like thy had something to prove. Not to anybody, but to the people on this team,” he said. “When you have a group of guys that goes out there and works so hard and see them go out there and produce on Saturday, it’s an amazing feeling.”