(UHND.com) – Offensive line coach John Latina spoke to the media on Thursday and one of the common themes throughout his talk was creating position flexibility. With greater depth than he’s had to work with since arriving at Notre Dame prior to the 2005 season, Latina is looking to put the best guys on the field while not pigeon holing players at certain positions.
When Latina arrived at Notre Dame as part of Charlie Weis’s first coaching staff, the Irish were short on depth along the offensive line. Two years later, however, that isn’t the case. “We have more capable bodies now than we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Latina told the media when asked about the depth situation this year.
The increased depth not only increases the level of competition throughout the offensive line, but it allows for Latina to create some flexibility amongst his players – something he has always believed in. “One of the things I’ve always done in my career, now going on 28, 29 years,” Latina started, “The more you can ask of your players mentally, the better they’re going to be even when they settle into one position.”
The benefit from having flexibility within the line is twofold according to Latina. “It allows you, when an injury occurs, to put in the next best player in.” He would stress the importance of this in terms of fielding the best line possible by stating, “If you just go by strictly positions, your 10th best player maybe the second right tackle. Why would you want to be the 10th best player in if the 6th best player can play that position as well.”
Aside from the ability to insert the next best player, the other added benefit of Latina’s philosophy is teaching the players how the entire line works together. “It really makes them grow and challenges them to learn the big picture instead of just their little world.”
The flexibility Latina prefers to create really was not possible the last two years when the Irish were so short on depth. This season, however, juniors like Michael Turkovich and Paul Duncan and young guys like Matt Carufel, Dan Wenger, and Eric Olsen are ready to compete for starting roles. Speaking specifically about Duncan and Turkovich, Latina said, “I think they’ve gotten a lot better from fall to spring, spring to where we are right now. “
Duncan, the most likely candidate to take over the vacated left tackle spot which opened up with the graduation of Ryan Harris, has also bulked up to the point where he is capable of handling the rigors of starting at the highly important left tackle position. Latina described Duncan as, “s a big, rangy, athletic kid.” The Georgia native is close to 300 pounds according to his coach after playing last year in the 270 pound range.
Despite the increase depth all across the line, experience is still a department the Irish come up short in. John Sullivan will be entering his fourth year as a starter and sophomore Sam Young started all 13 games in 2006, but after these two, there isn’t a single offensive lineman who has started a game on the college level. This level of inexperience poses another challenge to Latina – a challenge which he says is made easier through the extensive one on one pass rushing the Irish employed by the staff.
“The defense knows it’s not going to be a screen, the defense knows it’s not going to be a draw. They’re playing 3rd and 15 every time they snap the ball in that environment,” Latina told the media. This level of one on one competition puts the young offensive linemen in a spotlight position where there mistakes are magnified and there conquests glorified which in turn aides in their development.
The increased depth also does not mean that Latina and the staff can ease up on instilling the mentality it takes to excel in the trenches even to the few upperclassmen in the group. This challenge is something he and the other coaches tackle every day. “Offensive line is a huge attitude, it’s a huge toughness. Just when you start easing up or thinking you’re good enough you’ll go backwards in a hurry. That’s got to stay on our mind every single day.”
Latina has been hamstrung the past couple of years trying to hold together a rather thin offensive line with duct tape and bubblegum. This year, however, he’s got more depth and talent to work with than he’s ever had at Notre Dame which is allowing him to create the kind of flexibility amongst his linemen that he simply hasn’t had the last two years.