Part IV - Offensive Line
The offensive line returns four experienced starters this year, and has more depth and talent than last year's veteran squad, which had experience but little depth. I expect this year's squad to be as good as last year's, if not better. However, I won't be too worried if one or more of the front line guys goes down, like I was last year.
Photos courtesy University of Notre Dame Official Athletics Site / CSTV.com
Ryan Harris, Left Tackle, Senior (4-year starter)
The best lineman on the offense generally is tabbed to protect the quarterback's weak side, and Ryan Harris fills that role this year. He is one of the best tackles in the nation, and has the best NFL potential on the line.
He was named to the second-team preseason All-America for 2006 by Athlon, third-team by Street & Smiths and the Walter Camp Football Foundation. Sporting News rated him the number-six offensive tackle in college football, and Lindy's rated him the seventh best. He has also been named to the 2006 Outland Trophy watch list, the award given to the most outstanding offensive lineman.
Harris is one of the few players in Irish history to start as a true freshman, and has been a stalwart at his position, starting 32 straight games at left tackle. He will completely neutralize all but the best of the best pass rushers this year.
Dan Santucci, Left Guard, Senior (RS) (2-year starter)
Recruited as a defensive lineman, Santucci moved to the offensive line during spring practice in 2004. Much like Jeff Samardzija, he did not start under Willingham, getting his forst starting nod in the Insight Bowl. Under Coach Weis and Coach Latina, Santucci has improved immensely over a short period of time, and is now a top-notch offensive guard, rated as the 10th best guard in the country by Sporting News.
John Sullivan, Center, Senior (3-year starter)
Sully, as he is affectionately called by his coaches and teammates, is another veteran starter along the offensive line. Sully is also one of the better centers in the country, rated as the 10th best center in the country by Lindy's. He is a dependable senter, who has an excellent understanding of Coach Latina's blocking schemes. He rarely fails to recognize a blitz as the anchor of the offensive line, and almost never missnaps. He has also shown that he can be a bit of an actor as well, pulling off the surprise direct snap to Darius Walker at the end of the Stanford game last year to cement victory for the Irish.
Bob Morton, Right Guard, Senior (3-year starter)
I was deeply saddened to hear of Bob Morton's father passing this past week. I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 12 years old, and I know how difficult everyday life can be after such a devastating blow. He has truly impressed me with his dedication and faith in this time of hardship. He chose to stay with the team through last Friday's scrimmage, and will rejoin the team tomorrow (Tuesday), the day after his father's funeral. If you haven't watched his comments at the official Notre Dame website, I strongly urge you to do so. You can find them here.
Morton actually started his career at center, before being bumped to right guard by John Sullivan. Morton is actually the backup at center right now, and backup Brian Mattes would probably fill in at guard if Morton or Sully were to get injured.
Sam Young, Right Tackle (Freshman)
Sam Young has the most potential I've ever seen for a true freshman lineman. He has the natural size to be an NFL-caliber prospect, and his strength is already imprssive not just for a freshman, but for any college lineman. If this kid can actually get bigger and stronger during his career, and stay healthy, he will probably be the first offensive lineman pick when he comes out of college into the pros. But I'm getting ahead of myself, and starting to sound like Beano Cook.
With Ryan Harris anchoring the other side of the line, and being a true freshman, don't be surprised to see some teams rush Brady from the front side to try to take advantage of Young's inexperience. The first couple of games will be an adjustment period, as they always are, but this shouldn't be a problem with as much work as Darius Wlaker has put into blitz pickup in the offseason.
Brian Mattes, backup utility lineman, Senior (RS)
Mattes has never started for the University of Notre Dame, and is not starting again this year, yet his dedication to the team is unquestionable, coming back for a fifth year. He has impressed Coach Weis this year, and will likely be the #2 guy at either guard position. However, with Morton being starting right guard and backup center, Mattes would fill in if anyone on the interior line went down.
Duncan, backup right tackle, Sophomore
Duncan is the only player other than Mattes likely to see the field as a backup this year, barring complete meltdown along the offensive line and injuries galore. Duncan got edged out by Sam Young for the starting right tackle spot, but is not far behind, despite Young's freakish physique. Because he is so close behind Young, I would expect him to step in if either Young or (God forbid) Harris goes down with an injury. Turkovich is listed as the #2 guy on the depth chart behind Harris, but I think Coach is more enamored with Duncan at this point.
Other players listed on the two deep: Eric Olsen, Guard (freshman); Michael Turkovich, Tackle (sophomore); Dan Chervanick, Center (Senior (RS))
Coach Weis landed the best offensive line recruiting class in the country last year, and a class with such potential that it could go down as the best line recruiting class in Notre Dame history. Sam Young is already starting, Eric Olsen has pushed into the two deep, and we have some other man beasts in Matt Carufel and Dan Wenger. And if you want to talk about imposing, Chris Stewart is an absolute GIANT. As in 6'5" 350+ lbs. He was a little out of shape coming in this past winter, but another couple of months in the weight and conditioning program, and this kid could be a monster. If he can develop that massive frame to its full potential and develop his technique, he could be even better than Sam Young.
So, next year we will have a drop-off in experience, but may actually upgrade in talent.
But this year, we return the core of an offensive line that has been improving steadily over the past two years. If this group improves as much from last year to this year as it did from Ty Willie's last year to Coach Weis' first, we could have a Top-5 offensive line unit this year. Without improvement, this is a Top-15 unit as is. And if they do become a Top-5 unit, they'll have a couple of grateful friends with hefty NFL paychecks to buy them dinner next year in Quinn and Walker. Not to mention some hefty NFL paychecks for themselves.
When Brady has time to sit in the pocket, he can absolutely shred a defense. If Sam Young plays to his potential, this year's entire offense should improve dramatically from last year's, based on line play alone.
And that is a scary thought.