Over the course of this week, Irish Eyes will feature a series highlighting the best single-season Irish football players spanning the last three decades.
Wednesday afternoon’s edition: The five best single-season Offensive Linemen in the Willingham Era.
Before the term “nasty” ever appeared on a blue and gold T-shirt in the South Bend area, there was Jeff Faine. Three seasons before the same term became a fan-base catch phrase, Faine had foregone the empty rhetoric by choosing to define the term on the field. Jeff Faine was a leader. He was a bruising run blocker. And he was, above all else, Nasty.
Not since 1990 and nose tackle Chris Zorich had the Irish roster been blessed with a player that continued his battles one second after the whistle so eagerly and with such purpose. Faine wasn’t in his opponent’s face to taunt him or call attention to him: he intimidated because he had to and because he wanted to. This approach and effort won Faine no friends but plenty of respect from the man across from him after 60 minutes every Saturday.
As a senior in ’02 Faine won the Nick Pietrosante Award, voted by his teammates as the individual who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride shown by the late Irish All-America fullback. Faine finished his career as a second-team All American; a semi-finalist for the 2002 Lombardi Award given to the nation’s top interior lineman; and finalist for the Dave Rimington Award, recognizing the nation’s top center.
Guard Sean Mahan (2002)
Mahan won the Guardian of the Year Award in 2002 as the team’s top offensive lineman and was voted as one of four team captains along with Shane Walton, Arnaz Battle, and Gerome Sapp (teams in the Willingham era used different elected captains for each game then voted on the team’s official captains at season’s end). 2002 was Mahan’s second year as a starter and, playing to the left of All American center Jeff Faine, Mahan was instrumental in sophomore running back Ryan Grant’s 1,085 yard season.
The fifth-year senior guard threw key blocks on Grant’s go-ahead 4th Quarter touchdown run in a win over Michigan; the game-sealing TD carry by Grant vs. Pittsburgh, and the runner’s back-breaking 31-yard burst over the left side at Florida State.
Left Tackle Jim Molinaro (2003)
Molinaro, the 2003 recipient of the Guardian of the Year award, was the established veteran in class only for the 2003 offensive line. The entire unit, including Molinaro, consisted of first-time or spot starters, and Molinaro’s ascendency to a leadership position helped turn one of the country’s worst collection of run blockers in September into a team strength by season’s end.
Along with freshman right tackle Ryan Harris, Molinaro helped team MVP Julius Jones rank as one of two players nationally to run for more than 200 yards in three or more games.
Right Tackle Ryan Harris (2003)
Ryan Harris’ contribution to the 2003 squad isn’t hard to discern: the Irish running game gained 365 yards on 132 carries for one touchdown in four games without the true freshman starting at tackle. It proceeded to gain 1,532 on 340 for 12 touchdowns in eight contests with him. Additionally, the sack ratio of Irish QBs Carlyle Holiday and Brady Quinn fell from over 3.2 per game to less than 1.4 per outing.
Was Harris the only factor? Of course not, but his first start as a collegian resulted in a 352-yard team rushing effort, 262 of which were gained by Julius Jones, eclipsing the school-record of 255 set by Vagas Ferguson in 1978.
Harris was named to the second unit of the 2003 Freshman All American team.
Left Tackle Ryan Harris (2004)
Harris graduated from right tackle freshman phenom in ’03 to left tackle, and protector of sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn’s blind side in ’04. He led the unit in minutes played with 346 and emerged as the line’s leader by season’s end, ranking as one of the more experienced sophomore offensive tackles in the nation (19 starts under his belt).
Harris won the Guardian of the Year Award as the team’s top offensive lineman.
Next in the series: The best single-season Irish defenders from 2002-2004.