Kaczenski Defined by the Size of His Heart

By Joe Villinski

Rick Kaczenski has become Notre Dame’s most consistent offensive lineman.

Notre Dame center Rick Kaczenski doesn’t think about it.Doesn’t think about his size. Doesn’t think about the guys 50pounds heavier lining up against him in the trenches. After 17consecutive starts on the offensive line, those bigger guys tendto run together.

No matter that the Irish senior is 6-4, 255 pounds. The onlything that matters to Kaczenski is getting in someone’s way. Nomatter what it takes.

“He’s (Kaczenski) got to do anything he can and that’s howhe plays,” offensive coordinator Dave Roberts said. “He’s got tograb you by the top of the shoes and bite you on the ankle.Right now, he’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s gotso much guts.”

Enough guts that these size differences make nodifference to him.

“I try not to even think about it,” Kaczenski said. “I justgo out there and play. Once your on the field, it doesn’tmatter. Weight, height, speed. It all doesn’t matter. You’vejust got to go full blown.”

That type of attitude quickly earned the respect of histeammates when he entered the starting lineup last year. WithKaczenski starting the final 11 games of 1995, the Irishfinished sixth in rushing among NCAA squads, averaging 233.5yards. His quickness and tenacity made him a favorite of thecoaches.

“Rick’s not the biggest guy, but he is the toughest,”Roberts added. “There’s no question about his athleticism or hisheart. “He’s a warrior. He looks up and sees all these biggerguys and you wonder how he does it. But sometimes the biggerguys don’t have the heart that Rick Kaczenski does.”

Like so many underclassmen, Kaczenski toiled in practice forthe first two years, wondering if he would ever receive theminutes he desired. With future NFL players in front of him likeTim Ruddy and Dusty Zeigler, question marks filled Kaczenski’shead.

“You always wonder if you’re ever going to play,” he remembered.”I never thought I would be big enough or good enough to play.”

Once the starting job opened up, however, Kaczenski’s confidencesoared.

“I think with the respect of his teammates and his work ethic,all of a sudden he found out he’s a football player,” Robertssaid. “He started playing and quickly became a leader, and Ithink people look up to him or look down to him. You know someof the linemen look down to him.”

Nevertheless, Kaczenski realizes that he cannot merely show upand start every week. It is this attitude which has endeared himto coaches and players alike.

“You can’t be happy with just starting,” Kaczenski said. “Ifyou don’t perform well and improve every week, starting ismeaningless.”

Under the tutelage of offensive line coach Joe Moore,Kaczenski has refined his skills and learned how to neutralizethe advantage larger linemen possess. By constantly staying lowin blocking, Kaczenski became higher on the depth chart.

“I listen to what coach Moore teaches,” he said. “You canweigh 200 pounds and if you do what coach Moore teaches, you’regoing to block people.”

Kaczenski has displayed the guts coachesrespect not only on the field but off it. Following anuninspired performance against Air Force where the Irish rushedfor only 67 yards, the lowest in the Lou Holtz era, the middleman in the line put himself in the middle of the blame.

“We embarrassed ourselves against Air Force,” Kaczenski said.”Personally, you’ve got to look at yourself. I look at myself andI’m not very happy with my performance.”

The offensive line, once a solid unit in the preseason, hasnow become a question mark. The loss of sophomore guard MikeRosenthal to a broken ankle only makes matters worse. Two out ofthe past three weeks, the Irish have been dominated on the lineof scrimmage. Dismal rushing performances against Ohio State andAir Force have stalled the offense. While the offensive linecannot be singled out as the major problem, Kaczenski doesanyway.

“We (offensive line) deserve the blame,” he added. “If wedon’t play, the team is not going to win.”

There is often a tendency to not credit the offensive lineduring the good times, but criticize that same unit whenproblems arise. Kaczenski does not concern himself with thisseeming contradiction.

“Football is a team game,” he said. “Ifwe do well, we’re not worried about us. We’re worried about theteam. We don’t care if our names are in the papers.”

The reason Kaczenski’s name might appear in print can beattributed to his honesty. Rather than skirt an issue, thenative of Erie, Penn. addresses it.

Outside the locker room following the Ohio State game,Kaczenski flat out said the Irish did not play Notre Damefootball. When asked about the surprising Buckeye blitzing,Kaczenski responded that this is a Division I program and itshould be able to handle anything thrown its way.

His ideas regarding the loss to Air Force were no different.”We’re just trying to wipe the embarrassment off right now,”Kaczenski said. “We’re an embarrassed offensive line. I’membarrassed personally.

“We’re trying to practice so that doesn’thappen again. We’ve got to come out intense and go live everyplay. We can’t afford to take a play off.”

The conviction in his answers display the leadershipKaczenski has assumed since he was named a starter a season ago.Initially, it appeared Kaczenski would spend the year in aback-up role, but an injury to Jeremy Akers forced Duty Zeiglerto the guard spot and thrusted Kaczenski into the spotlight.

His first start was the culmination of working at the centerposition for two years. Originally, Kaczenski was recruited outof high school as a tight end, but he had to adjust to being in themiddle of things.

“The center position is so important,” Robertssaid. “It’s so complicated with every blocking call. You’ve gotto be intelligent and be able to recognize things. It takes avery special person to be able to do what we have to do.”

Despite a rocky start, Kaczenski soon proved to be aninvaluable commodity on the line.

“Rick went in there and kind of gelled the whole offensiveline as far as effort and attitude,” Roberts said. “That’s whathe’s going to have to do the next five weeks of the season. He’sone of the leaders, if not the leader. We can’t afford to have agood game and then a bad one. We’ve got to start getting someconsistency.”

As with everything else, Kaczenski puts himself in themiddle of that challenge too.

“For the rest of the season, I’m just going to try and getconsistent,” Kaczenski said.