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Sam Young: Stalwart tackle has started since week one, 2006

Michael Bryan | Thursday, November 19, 2009

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Sept. 18 edition of The Observer.

While the past four years have been an up-and-down journey of wins, losses, success and failure, the one constant through every Notre Dame game has been offensive tackle Sam Young.

When he takes the field on Saturday, Young will set the Notre Dame record for most career starts by any player, with his 49 straight surpassing former teammates Maurice Crum Jr. and Tom Zbikowski. He is the only offensive lineman in the long and storied history of Irish football to start every game of his career.

“It’s been a lot of hard work and a little luck [starting 49 straight],” Young said. “It’s really been a rollercoaster ride for this senior class, there’s been highs and lows and in-betweens. It’s been crazy.”

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 heartbreaking losses to USC, Michigan or Navy) 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.

“I remember, before that first game [at Georgia Tech in 2006], I was fully suited up about ten minutes after we got off the bus, I was so anxious,” Young said. “Looking back, it’s crazy to think about where I was then and where I am now.”

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].”

The Irish have allowed 21 sacks this season, but the emphasis and improvement in run blocking has been evident. Behind Young and the offensive line, Notre Dame’s running backs are each averaging close to or over five yards per carry, a dramatic improvement from last season.

“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, a 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 on Saturday will take the Notre Dame record for most starts made 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. It’s gone fast. Freshman year seemed like it took forever, and since then it’s just hit high gear and motored along,” he said.