Aug. 18, 2003
by Lisa Mushett
With experience comes results or at least that is what Notre Dame offensive line coaches John McDonell and Mike Denbrock are hoping for during the 2003 season. The Irish have gone from one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation (a combined 133 starts at the end of the 2002 season) to one of the greenest, but both coaches are excited about the upcoming year.
“We do not have a lot of experience up front, but we have a lot of talent,” McDonell, who concentrates on centers and guards, says.
“Our job now is to take that talent and get it the experience it needs.”
Gone from the roster are offensive line stalwarts left tackle Jordan Black, left guard Sean Mahan, center Jeff Faine, right tackle Brennan Curtin and utility player Ryan Gillis, who combined, played over 3,000 minutes in their careers.
Oh, and they had talent too. Faine was named a first-team All-American in 2002 and the runner up for the 2002 Rimington Award given to the nation’s best center. Black earned preseason honorable mention All-America honors the past three seasons and at one point in his career had 42 consecutive starts on the line. Mahan was named a team captain in 2002 and won the Notre Dame offensive lineman of the year award, while Curtin was a starter his final two seasons and Gillis was a valuable backup at every position on the line. Also, Faine, Black, Mahan and Curtin were selected in the 2003 NFL draft.
“We have our work cut out for us in replacing these guys,” Denbrock, who is responsible for the tackles and tight ends, says.
“It is hard to lose all that experience, especially in one season, but we are excited about the players we have coming back and are expecting good things from them this year.”
The lone returning starter to the ’03 line is fifth-year senior Sean Milligan. A two-year first teamer at right guard, Milligan has 17 starts in his career, including 12 of 13 games last season, and has played over 400 minutes. He is an excellent technician and has solid all-around ability.
The only other two players back for the Irish who have made starts during their careers are fifth-year senior Jim Molinaro and junior Dan Stevenson. Molinaro, who moved from the defensive line to the offensive side of the ball two years ago, started the final three games of the ’02 season, including the 2003 Gator Bowl, and is penciled in as the starter at left tackle. Stevenson came on strong at the end of the 2002 season, playing some valuable minutes at guard during the year and then starting his first career game at right tackle in the Gator Bowl.
After Milligan, Molinaro and Stevenson, it is a mystery as to who will backup the tackles and who will start at the other guard and center positions. Of the returning candidates, only one player has seen more than five minutes of action in his career – that being junior guard Mark LeVoir, who emerged as the front runner at the left guard position after spring practice. Others in the mix to spell the guards are junior Darin Mitchell (1 game) and sophomore James Bonelli (DNP in ’02), while sophomores Brian Mattes, who made dramatic improvements during the spring season after moving to the offensive line, Scott Raridon and Jamie Ryan will back up the tackles.
Perhaps the biggest question of the season is who will become the heir apparent to Faine. Junior Zachary Giles and sophomore Bob Morton have the best shot coming into the ’03 season in what will be a daily battle between the two. Giles, who saw action in one game in ’02, emerged as the first-team center after spring practice, but Morton (DNP in ’02) is close on his heels and could be the opening day starter for the Irish come Sept. 6 against Washington State. Junior Jeff Thompson, who switched from the defensive to offensive line just before the Gator Bowl, could also challenge for time at center, but will play some guard as well.
While the center, guards and tackles positions are thin, there is no shortage of talent when it comes to the tight end spot. Led by fifth-year senior and two-year starter Gary Godsey and seniors Billy Palmer and Jared Clark, Denbrock and the Irish could have a problem finding playing time for a position that runs six or seven players deep in ’03. In addition to Godsey, Palmer and Clark, the Irish also have sophomores Anthony Fasano (DNP in ’02) and Marcus Freeman (DNP in ’02) and freshman sensation Greg Olson in which they need to find some playing time for this year.
“We have tremendous depth at the tight end position with our biggest problem being finding playing time for all of them. That is a nice problem to have though as there is key experience and leadership at that position,” Denbrock says.
Now if some of that experience and leadership can rub off on the rest of the offensive line, the Irish should see some results in 2003.