Season preview ’08: Offensive Line

If there is one unit whose improvement Notre Dame’s success in 2008 hinges upon the most, it’s the offensive line. The struggles of last year’s line are well documented – the 58 sacks, the anemic run game, the penalties. It’s all been talked about ad nauseum this off-season, but it still warrants repeating. If the Irish are to improve on the offensive side of the ball this season, the offensive line is going to have to improve drastically.

Last year’s offensive line looked over matched and out of place more often than not. Blame a lack of experience. Notre Dame returned just two starters along the offensive line last year.

Blame a lack of physical practices from spring through the fall. Notre Dame’s walk through NFL style practices of a year ago have been blamed for a lot of the Irish’s struggles in 2007.

Blame a lack of strength. Last year’s line featured more players weighing less than 300 lbs than more than 300 lbs.

Whatever the reason for Notre Dame’s offensive line problems a year ago, it’s clear that Notre Dame’s offense won’t be a whole lot better in 2008 unless the line makes major strides by the time they kick off against San Diego State this weekend.

To fix the offensive line, Charlie Weis and offensive line coach John Latina have implemented a number of fixes this off-season. First off, the experience factor has taken care of itself. Last year only John Sullivan and Sam Young brought any starting experience to the table. This year, all five of Notre Dame’s projected starters have had at least a couple starts under their belts.

Since last year, practices at Notre Dame have also become much more physical. Listen to any of the Notre Dame players talk about training camp this summer and the one common theme you’ll hear is that practices have been a whole lot more physical this summer. At times last year the line looked like it was playing at half speed. Part of the reason for that could very well have been the walk through NFL style practices.

Lastly, the Notre Dame offensive line hit the weight room really hard this off-season. When the Irish line up for their first offensive snap of the season on Saturday, every member of the starting offensive line will be over 300 pounds with Sam Young and Chris Stewart both pushing 330. The question will be, however, if they simple just added weight or if they added muscle while maintaining their agility.

The Starters
Notre Dame broke in three new starters along the offensive line in last year’s opener – Dan Wenger, Paul Duncan, and Michael Turkovich – and that lack of experience was on full display against Jon Tenuta’s attacking Georgia Tech defense. This year all five of the starting linemen will have at least some starting experience to draw on to start the season.

Sam Young is the veteran of the group and will be returning for his third season as a starter. After starting at right tackle in the first game of his college career, Young has been flip flopped between left and right tackle. It seems like he’s found a home at right tackle for this year. On top of flipping back and forth between both tackle positions, it’s been rumored that Young never played at full strength last year as he battled through a couple of injuries.

Having a steady position and better health this year should allow for Young to have a much better outing this year as a junior than he had last year as a sophomore. Young has also talked with Weis about becoming more of a leader on this team and with two seasons of starting experience under his belt, he is far and away the most experienced lineman for the Irish this fall. Just having experience won’t be enough for Young this year though. He’s going to need to show some major improvement this year to show that those five star rankings were warranted two years ago.

Junior Michael Turkovich started last season off as the starting left guard and spent much of the spring battling to keep that position. The emergence of Chris Stewart and Eric Olsen at the guard positions and Paul Duncan’s inability to lock down the left tackle position, however, got Weis and Latina to give Turkovich a look at left tackle this summer and according to both, the results have been very positive.

According to Charlie Weis last week, Turkovich ended up wining the starting left tackle position running away and seems to have locked down his starting stauts. Turkovich was one of Notre Dame’s better run blockers last year, but his pass blocking was lacking. He especially had trouble when we would get out in front of a screen to block. Part of that could have been his inexperience. A player can look pretty slow if they are not sure of what they are doing.

According to Weis and Latina though, the light seems to have come on for Turkovich so to speak. Still, the biggest question mark along the line this year appears to be right here. Can a converted guard who had struggle pass blocking last year step in and be effective at the one offensive line position where pass blocking is most critical? Ask me on Sunday morning.

At the guard positions, Notre Dame appears to have a couple of maulers in Eric Olsen and Chris Stewart. Olsen took over Matt Carufel’s starting RG position last year in the beginning of the season and despite his growing pains, he showed the type of attitude you want in an offensive lineman. He’s a brawler and a fighter in the trenches which led to some solid run blocking from the then sophomore. Like Turkovich though, he had troubles in pass protection. Really though, what offensive linemen didn’t have problems in that department last year?

Stewart’s path to starting right guard hasn’t exactly been conventional. In the spring of 2007, the coaching staff experiments with Stewart at NG in Notre Dame’s 3-4 defense. Injuries derailed that experiment and he was back at the offensive line by fall camp. By mid October, Stewart was contemplating leaving Notre Dame and briefly left campus. Stewart returned, however, and came back with a brand new attitude. Since then he’s almost been a completely different player and he is now entrenched as the starting right guard heading into his junior season.

Rounding out the starting five along the line is junior Dan Wenger. Wenger started off last season as the starting left guard playing next to John Sullivan even though he was recruited as a center. He was one of the five best linemen last year though and the staff wanted him on the field. By season’s end Sullivan was hurt and Wenger was starting at center for the last few games. With Wenger at center there was hardly any drop-off at the position and now he’s got starting experience at the position he will be playing this year.

Wenger’s got the potential to be a very, very good offensive lineman for this team. Among last year’s linemen, Wenger had some of the best technique and this off-season he added some bulk to go along with it.

The Reserves
For the first time since Weis has arrived at Notre Dame, the Irish have a legit two deep along the line which isn’t fill with first year players who really aren’t ready to play yet. Sophomores Matt Romine and Taylor Dever are listed as the backup tackles this season. Both tackles cracked the two deep last year more out of necessity than anything else. Romine ended up getting hurt against Michigan and didn’t see the field for the rest of the year. Dever got some spot duty last year too but probably wouldn’t have seen the field in a normal year.

Romine might be the future at left tackle for the Irish, but still also may be a year away from seriously challenging for the starting job. He definitely has the skill for the position, but could use some seasoning this year before he is really ready to step into regular playing time. Dever is in the same boat as well. Both of these young linemen have starting skill, but could use some experience this year before being thrust into a starting role much like last year’s linemen were.

Paul Duncan, who started last season as the starting left tackle, has been moved to left guard where he will back up Eric Olsen. At 6’7” though, is he too tall for the position? At guard he will be going up against interior linemen who will be quite a bit shorter than he is. Will defensive tackles be able to get under Duncan and win the leverage battle when he gets in the game?

Notre Dame’s other backup guard will be true freshman Trevor Robinson. Robinson reported to Notre Dame for the spring semester and has the advantage of a full spring practice under his belt. At the Blue Gold game, Robinson looked like one of the biggest offensive linemen on the team and Weis has said multiple times this summer that the arrow is “pointing up’ for Trevor. Still, having to rely on a true freshman is never really a good thing. All signs, however, are pointing to Robinson being up for that challenge though.

Rounding out the two deep are Thomas Bemenderfer and Braxston Cave who share the backup center position behind Wenger. Bemenderfer saw the field last year and was a really feisty player whenever he got in the game. Like Olsen, he is a mauler who has the exact attitude you want from an offensive linemen. Cave, a true freshman, is listed at 315 on the current depth chart which places him 3rd among the offensive linemen in terms of bulk.

Others providing depth will be sophomore Andrew Nuss at guard and freshmen Lane Clelland and Mike Golic Jr.

How It Will Play Out
Based on experience alone the offensive line should be better this year. A lot of these guys got their feet wet last and were baptized under fire. That experience, while painful to watch last year, should serve them well as they attempt to redeem themselves this year.

The interior line should be the strength of the unit. With Stewart and Olsen at guard and Wenger at center, Notre Dame should have some beef up the middle to run behind with power backs Robert Hughes and James Aldridge. The tackle positions, however, will still be question marks heading into the season. Can a fully healthy Sam Young start to live up to the high expectations? Can a converted guard like Turkovich handle the ever so pivotal left tackle positions?

Look for Notre Dame to be a much more improved run blocking team this year while still struggling in pass protection against teams with good speed rushers. Seeing Jon Tenuta’s complicated blitz schemes day in and day out in practice should help this offensive line tremendously, but you can’t teach speed or agility and that is where this line could still be exploited this year.

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