Aug. 20, 2004
by Alan Wasielewski At times it becomes such a cliché that it is hard to keep speaking the mantra but, inevitably, it ends up being true: offensive line play will determine the success of any offensive unit in college football. The numbers proved that theory for Notre Dame in 2003. The Irish rushed for 352 total yards at Pittsburgh, 280 yards versus Navy, 204 yard versus BYU and 320 yards at Stanford. Those impressive ground gains constituted four of Notre Dame’s five victories during the season. Meanwhile, rushing totals of 49 at Michigan, 49 at Purdue and 47 at Boston College point out why those three games ended up in the loss column. The Irish offensive line has been a maligned group over the last few seasons, but a trial by fire with great performances and poor performances in 2003, has transformed the group into an experienced line capable of sustained excellence this fall. Returning starters run deep on the Irish offensive line, with 2003 team playing-time leader tackle Mark LeVoir, freshman All-America tackle Ryan Harris, guard Dan Stevenson, guard Bob Morton and center Zach Giles. Also returning with a wealth of experience at the outside of the line are tight ends Billy Palmer, Jared Clark and Anthony Fasano. Throw in an anticipated break out season from sophomore John Sullivan at center and this crew of linemen gives coaches John McDonell (centers/guards) and Mike Denbrock (tackles/tight ends) a solid foundation to work with. “I feel better because there are not as many unknowns,” McDonell says. The 2003 season began with Harris, Morton, Jamie Ryan and Darin Mitchell having little or no playing time before they were thrust into the lineup. Hard work will be required for every player on the line this season. While each of the key linemen feature both playing and starting experience, there are several position moves that will require some adaptation. LeVoir, who played close to every minute of each contest last season at left guard, moves to right tackle. Harris jumps from right tackle, where he started the final eight games last year as a true freshman, to the all-important left tackle position protecting quarterback Brady Quinn’s blind spot and replacing NFL draftee Jim Molinaro.
Bob Morton, in action during the Blue and Gold Game in ’04, has shifted from center to guard in 2004.
The changes continue on the interior where Morton shifts from Center to guard, Stevenson (a former tackle) will see even more time at the other guard position (after making five starts there in 2003) while Sullivan and Giles battle it out for playing time at center. Obviously, the challenge for the interior line is to utilize their experience across all the positions to become a cohesive unit. “It’s very relevant that those guys are not necessarily in the same place,” Denbrock says. “But we have had the luxury of them being on the field at the same time.” While the rushing numbers were telltale indicators of last season’s offensive output, the line also needs to improve its pass protection. Quinn attempted and completed a record number of passes last season, but Notre Dame’s passing offense ended up 92nd in the nation. Providing the Irish quarterback the time to find the open man from a talented group of receivers will be as much of a priority as opening holes for anticipated starting tailback Ryan Grant and the rest of the Irish backfield. The interior line might be in a state of flux, but the Irish tight end corps is poised to become the strength of the Notre Dame offensive machine in 2004. Palmer, Clark and Fasano all saw more than 100 minutes of playing time last season and combined for 34 catches and two touchdowns. Fasano sat out the spring session to rest a back injury, but a full recovery and return to the line up will provide the Irish offense with a big boost. Palmer and Clark dominated the Blue-Gold Game, each making three catches in the contest. John Carlson, who spent a portion of the 2003-04 school year on the Irish men’s basketball team, could also break into the rotation after observing from the sidelines during his freshman season. Another intriguing possibility at tight end is converted outside linebacker Jerome Collins, who hopes to bring his athletic talents to bear on the other side of the ball in 2004. Cautious optimism abounds for the offensive line group in 2004 as they look to put a roller coaster 2003 campaign behind them. As difficult a position to play in football with little glory and no personal statistics, the Irish offensive linemen do know that the old cliché will most likely come to bear again this fall – their ability to come together as a unit will determine the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s offense in 2004. For Ryan Harris, The Future Is Now Ryan Harris stepped on the field for Notre Dame last season at Pittsburgh expecting to see the first playing time of his career. The Irish coaches took it one step further, however, inserting the highly touted rookie into the starting line up against the Panthers. Walking off the field after a 20-14 victory over the 15th-ranked Panthers, the Irish offense had exploded for 352 rushing yards – including a school-record 262 from Julius Jones. Was it a coincidence that the 352 yards popped up in Harris’ first career start? Possibly, but eight games later Harris eventually helped the Irish line open up holes for 1,062 yards of Jones’ 1,268 total rushing yards last season. Coincidence aside, it was clear to see that Harris brought something to the offensive line that the group was missing.
Ryan Harris has quickly established himself as one of the top offensive tackles in the nation.
A right tackle for his eight starts last season (when he became just the third true freshman offensive linemen to start for Notre Dame since 1972), Harris has shifted across the line to left tackle and assumed the responsibility to watch quarterback Brady Quinn’s back side. A freshman All-American, Harris has quickly developed into one of the anchors on the Irish line. Challenged to learn completely opposite footwork on the left side, the St. Paul, Minn., hopes to utilize his experience as a freshman to become a leader in the huddle for Notre Dame. “I just look at (my experience last year) as a chance to help my team any way I can,” Harris says. “I work hard everyday and pick up the systems and schemes more and more. I want to make a difference when I am in the lineup.”