February 16, 2009

New Irish coach will take new approach

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The message coming from Frank Verducci won't change.

It's the delivery that's up for debate with Notre Dame's new offensive line coach and running game coordinator, the latter title a promotion received before his first practice. After spending the better part of a decade in the NFL, Verducci said amending his style may be a must.

"It's going to be interesting to see, to be honest with you," he said. "I coached very few men [in the NFL] who needed a cattle prod to get going. They all had that … professional pride. To me that's a little bit of a challenge to have … a less mature athlete at this level."

Not that Notre Dame's line is inexperienced, entering spring practice with a combined 100 career starts spread among Sam Young, Eric Olsen, Dan Wenger, Paul Duncan, Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson. It's production that's been the problem with Notre Dame's past two ground games ranked as the worst in school history.

With those failures in mind, odds are Verducci will revert to the persona he showed while working at Iowa from 1989-98, which was neither warm nor cuddly. In fact, when some of his collegiate products mixed with his NFL pupils they couldn't believe the coach that tore into players in Iowa City had mellowed during stops in Cincinnati, Dallas, Buffalo and Cleveland.

"Whether that's yelling or whether that's rubbing their back, I've got to find that out and take that approach," Verducci said. "I'm trying to emphasize all the positives that I see. [It's] more a dollar of praise for a dime of criticism.

"I think I have imparted to them that when we do get going with this thing that I do have high standards, I do have high expectations. I want their input but there are certain approaches to the game that are not open to compromise."

Verducci stopped short of criticizing John Latina's work but made it clear he's already identified areas in the line where he believes fixes can be made. Whether he does that through man blocking or zone blocking schemes remains unclear, although Notre Dame may use both next season.

Coach Charlie Weis doesn't care which philosophy Verducci employs just as long as he sees improvement in the running game. The Irish averaged 3.27 yards per carry last season. Compare that to national champion Florida (5.94) or rival USC (5.04). Of the teams that finished in The Associated Press Top 25 last season, only three averaged less than four yards per carry (Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Michigan State).

"That's obviously an area of concern on my part, and an area that I drastically think has to improve if we're gonna play championship-caliber football," Weis said.

With Weis holding the title of offensive coordinator next season, it will be on Verducci to craft the ground game to fit the head coach's philosophy. The way Weis described it, it will be up to Verducci to devise the game plan on the ground, which will then be meshed into Weis' overall offensive attack.

"That doesn't mean everything he says we end up doing, but usually the majority of what he ends up recommending gives you the best chance of being successful in that game," Weis said.

One change that won't be made is the man organizing the line's strength and conditioning. Both Weis and Verducci complimented the work of Ruben Mendoza, although the Irish line often failed to hold up on the ground. Weis hinted at changes in Mendoza's offseason game plan, but that staff position will remain settled.

Verducci said he likes what he's seen from Mendoza and it's on the players to prove themselves. That's an area Verducci expects to receive an education before spring practice kicks off March 19.

"The biggest thing that I'm looking to do with the winter conditioning program is to look at the work capacity of the offensive linemen and then the competitiveness," he said. "I'd like to see how hard they work, how long they can work and then how hard they compete and how long they compete."


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