The biggest question mark for the Notre Dame offense heading into the season was the offensive line. The biggest question mark on the offensive line was the left tackle position.
Well, Michael Turkovich won the left tackle job coming out of camp and he and the offensive line as a unit have been pretty solid through the first two games of the season and are one of the main reasons the Irish stand at 2-0 right now.
Charlie Weis knows his players and understands how they’ve improved.
“I think if you asked him, knowing Michael, who is such an intense guy, (he would say) his confidence,” Weis prophesied.
Turkovich was asked and Weis was right.
“I think the most important thing is confidence,” he said.
Offensive line coach John Latina offered a slightly different explanation for Turkovich’s improvement.
“I think maturity was the big thing. Sometimes guys realize they are getting late in their careers and they press a little bit more and they push themselves a little bit more. He finally got a chance to play an awful lot last year,” Latina said. “I think anytime you get experience, you expect guys to come back and play better the next year. I think he’s typical of that formula. I think it’s the maturity and experience that he gained last year.”
Turkovich started all 12 games at guard as a junior on an offensive line that struggled mightily in 2007. But he was moved outside before this season to compete with Paul Duncan for the left tackle position.
“I’ve been really, really pleased with Mike. We moved him to guard because I thought he was going to struggle out there at tackle. We played him at guard and then moved him back to tackle to give him another shot,” Latina said. “He has played really well. He obviously won that thing in fall camp because he has played consistent. I like the fact that he is a veteran player and he is playing very consistent and he is a tough kid, so I’ve been pleased with him.”
Latina admits that he did not think that Turkovich would be a good fit on the edge.
“I moved him inside because I thought he was better suited for the inside. In hindsight he has proven me wrong. I think he’s better suited outside and that’s why he’s back out there,” Latina said. “I just felt he was better suited inside because he’s a tough guy and a physical guy and you play against bigger guys inside than you do at the edge. He has proven me wrong on that and has played well for us so far.”
Turkovich says that it is his job to play and Latina’s job to coach and doesn’t care where he plays as long as he plays.
“Coach does whatever he thinks is the best. I don’t know whether I proved him wrong or not but I think that the main thing this year is I’m playing with a lot more confidence than I had last year,” he said. “I can seen myself making plays in the offseason and I realized I can do that every time and I think that really helped. As far as whether I’m a tackle or a guard, I play wherever they put me.”
Moving from inside to outside is not always the easiest change.
“I’ve always felt like it’s been a lot more difficult to transition from guard to tackle than it is from tackle to guard, especially if you have some toughness about you because outside you play against guys who can run 4.5’s, 4.6’s,” Latina said. “You get a variety. You get some big guys that can push on you and bang on you. You get guys that come in on third down and all of a sudden he’s a speed guy. It could be a safety that you’re blocking that is playing the outside backer position. I have always thought it was easier to transition from outside to inside.”
Turkovich has noticed the differences of playing on the outside and the opponents that he goes against now.
“I think the main difference is playing in space. You have a guy on your outside that is more of a speed guy than a bulky guy on the inside. You have more room to work with and more room to see stuff happen in front of you instead having a guy on your shoulder and coming off and hitting him,” he said. “A lot of techniques as far as getting back seeing stuff happen in front of you, using your technique to see and having good eyes.”
Weis points to Turkovich’s increased belief in himself as the main reason why he has been able to strive in his new role.
“A lot of times when you're out there at left tackle you're on an island. I think you need to have confidence that you can stand there by yourself and do it,” Weis said. “I think this year, in training camp, he just showed us a different level of confidence than we had seen with him at any time in his career here.”
For Turkovich much of that confidence came from working out in the offseason against a revamped Notre Dame defense with a renewed emphasis on pressure.
“In the offseason when you’re going against a defense like Coach (Jon) Tenuta’s that just blitzes every play, guys are coming every play and you see it full speed it really helps you. It becomes second nature. You see the way the defense lines up in their stances, you see the linebackers and if they’re cheating,” he said. “You know what’s going to happen. That’s the most important as an offensive lineman, when you know what’s happening, you can play a lot better, play a lot faster.”
Weis admits that in the past he had been cautious to blitz too much during practice, but with this year’s defense playing that way, he really had no choice.
“In the past one of the things I was always leery with is just letting it be a blitz-a-thon every day in practice,” he said. “But because we're practicing blitzing so much, the volume of blitzes they get on a day in, day out basis when it's one against ones have been increased so much. It gets them much more ready for a lot of things that could be dialed up. I think it definitely has a big carry-over effect.”
While Turkovich and the line as a whole have shown dramatic improvement in the first two games, they still have some more strides to make, especially in the running game. But pass protection thus far has been solid and they have not allowed a sack after setting an NCAA record with 58 in 2007.
Latina did not feel that all of the sacks last year were necessarily the offensive line’s fault and true to his theory, he does not think the credit for the increased pass protection this season should be directed at the offensive line alone.
“I said it last year and I’ve always believed this my whole career, pass protection is a team stat. The receivers being in the right place at the right time; the timing of quarterbacks, the backs protecting, the tight ends protecting and obviously the line protecting,” Latina said. “I think that is an ultimate team stat and I’ve always believed that. We had a couple pressures in the game last week that Jimmy (Clausen) did a great job of bailing out and throwing it away and not taking the sack. So I think those are going to happen and the good ones are able to do that at that position. It’s something that we have focused on as a team and I think our team has gotten better at that.”