Over the next five days Irish Eyes will feature a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
This morning we began the series with the skill position players from the Weis Era. Tonight we examine Part II of The Weis-Era offense: The O-line.
In most cases, fans don’t notice a solid right tackle until he’s gone. And this was certainly the case for Irish fans and the previously non-descript LeVoir. In 11 starts at right tackle in ’05, LeVoir led an Irish group of pass protectors that yielded just 21 sacks in 454 pass attempts. That number jumped to 31 (in 471 attempts) in ’06. Likewise, the Irish rushing attack saw its touchdown total take a hit (21 in ’05 to 14 in ’06) as well suffering a drop in average yards rushing from 147 to 125 per contest.
LeVoir, who excelled throughout the contest against USC, executed the key seal block to open a path for Quinn on the would-be game-winner vs. the Trojans. He continued to play his best vs. top competition as the senior threw two key blocks leading to Darius Walker scores in the Fiesta Bowl – the first an athletic play in which he sought, found, and buried Ohio State LB Anthony Schlegel on Walker’s 20-yard TD to give the Irish a 7-0 lead; the second a key 3rd down pull to pave the way for Walker to cut the Buckeye’s lead to 27-20 with just under five minutes remaining.
LeVoir’s 2005 playing time: 391:15
Stevenson claimed the 2005 Guardian of the Year Award as the top Irish offensive lineman. A three-year starter at guard, his absence (along with RT Mark LeVoir) was noticeable in 2006 when the offensive line struggled in short-yardage situations and on 3rd down as the ’05 offense converted at a 49% clip while the ’06 offense, sans Stevenson and LeVoir, earned an extra set of downs at just over a 39% rate.
Stevenson threw key blocks on two Powers-Neal TD runs vs. Pittsburgh in the opening-game route and twice sealed two different Trojans defenders in the clash vs. USC – once on Travis Thomas’ score from 16 yards out to tie the score in the first period, and again on Quinn’s QB draw to take a 31-28 lead with just over two minutes remaining. He continued to dominate in space through the season’s final weeks and into the Fiesta Bowl, highlighted by Stevenson again acting as a pulling guard to seal and bury a backside blitzer vs. Ohio State for a Darius Walker 10-yard touchdown run late in the 3rd Quarter vs. the Buckeyes.
Stevenson’s 2005 playing time: 366:50
Sullivan began 2005 as the O-line’s swing player, and technically Bob Morton’s backup at center. But despite four games in which the offense tallied 719 yards rushing and 7 TD as well as 1,181 yards passing with 10 scores, Sullivan showed enough in practice and in backup duty to wrestle the starting position away from Morton for the season’s final nine eight contests.
In Sullivan’s first start (at Purdue) he and his line mates did not allow a sack en route to 621 yards of total offense and seven touchdowns. The Irish scored 35 touchdowns in his seven regular season starts including an astounding 17 in Sullivan’s first three contests as the starting center (Purdue, USC, and BYU).
Sullivan’s shining individual moment occurred in the final game of the regular-season when his direct snap to RB Darius Walker on a two-point conversion extended the Irish lead from five to seven with just 55 seconds remaining.
Sullivan’s 2005 playing time: 273:30
Santucci logged 12 starts at guard in ’05 and it was his athleticism and versatility that helped the line click. His ability to play in space was on display for the matchup with No. 1 ranked USC in Game Six where his ability to pull on running plays and lead block on a myriad of screen passes helped the Irish to 31 points, the most points logged vs. the Trojans in more than two seasons.
Perhaps his most recognizable individual effort of ’05 occurred in the 2nd Quarter of the season-opener at Pittsburgh as five (full) seconds of Santucci pass protection allowed Quinn to step up in the pocket on a TD pass to a diving Samardzija. Two series later, Santucci destroyed the Panthers middle linebacker to pave the way for a 9-yard Rashon Powers-Neal TD run and a 35-13 halftime advantage.
Santucci’s 2005 playing time: 326:22
Harris won the Guardian of the Year Award in 2006 as the team’s top offensive lineman, but his performance in ’05, along with that of most of the offensive line, garners my vote as his best season of the Weis era.
A four-year starter at left tackle, Harris excelled as a rare pulling tackle in ’05 while successfully sealing the edge on Darius Walker’s off-tackle rushes. He protected Quinn’s blind side, helping pave the way for a school-record 3,963 yards passing and was part of a line that allowed a mere 21 sacks on 454 passing attempts, including seven games in which the line allowed one or zero takedowns of Quinn.
Harris led the offensive line in playing time 393:40 and special teams appearances (73).
Tomorrow Morning: All Weis-Era Defense – Part I