Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lining Up | by Pat

Earlier in the year, the Wall Street Journal put out a great article and chart showing the varying experience level of collegiate offensive lines. Echoing the idea behind Ivan Maisel's blurb from last fall, the article mentioned the strong correlation between cumulative offensive line starts and team success. Like many ND fans, I quickly scanned the list and was happy to not only see ND ahead of all opponents, but above every single BCS conference team save Virginia Tech. Here's the the breakdown of ND career OL starts versus the 2009 opponents for those who missed it.

1. Notre Dame - 100
2. Southern Cal - 91
3. Connecticut - 91
4. Washington State - 82
5. Boston College - 80
6. Michigan - 75
7. Washington - 67
8. Nevada - 62
9. Pittsburgh - 62
10. Purdue - 56
11. Stanford - 53
12. Michigan State - 47
13. Navy - 32
But while it's nice to look at a list like this, ND's OL isn't going to face any of these other offensive lines. Knowing that ND's DL is going to be very young this year, there are still a number of veteran OLs they will have to face and attempt to out-play.

On the flip side, I was curious. What kind of experience will ND's veteran OL be facing? Will it be up against a steady stream of battle-tested defensive lines that will somewhat negate ND's cumulative playing time?

The following is the breakdown of the cumulative starts from the opponent's defensive lines heading into the 2009 season. An important caveat that needs to be mentioned is that defensive lines rotate players far more than offensive lines. So a key player could be a strong contributor, but never be a "starter". Southern Cal's Everson Griffen comes to mind. However, minutes played aren't published by every program, so we'll have to stick with the slightly less exact metric of cumulative team starts. If you notice any mistakes, feel free to chime in with a comment.
1. Stanford - 67
2. Navy - 66
3. Pittsburgh - 62
4. Washington - 60
5. Boston College - 51
6. Michigan State - 48
7. Nevada - 40
8. Purdue - 25
9. Connecticut - 23
10. Michigan - 17
11. Southern Cal - 16
12. Washington State - 6
What do you think? Surprising to see Southern Cal so far down there, but they do have a number of experienced and talented backups thanks to years of excellent recruiting. Michigan's inexperience wasn't really a surprise considering their graduation losses, but they are still pretty low. Even worse for them, Brandon Graham holds 16 of their 17 cumulative starts. Other programs where a single player includes more than 50% of a team's total include Michigan State (Trevor Anderson - 31 of 48), Washington (Daniel Teo-Nesheim - 36 of 60), and Southern Cal (Christian Tupou - 10 of 17). Washington State might have a hard time improving on last season's nation's worst rush defense with only six returning starts. On the other hand, there did appear to be a number of new junior college players making up the depth chart.

Without knowing the results from the rest of the nation's DL, it's hard to try and draw too many other hard and fast conclusions from these numbers. On the whole though, I don't see many veteran filled defensive lines on the Irish docket for 2009. What led me to this conclusion was figuring out ND's DL number. I had assumed ND would be near the bottom of the list, but after adding up Kerry Neal's 15 starts, John Ryan's 15 starts (!), Ian Williams's 8 starts, and Ethan Johnson's 4 starts, the grand total of 42 was higher than I expected. That would land ND right in the middle of the above list. In reality, ND's line that sees the field most often will be slightly younger as Ryan appears to have been passed on the depth chart. But other teams could very well have similar issues.

The main takeaway seems to be that there really are no excuses for the Notre Dame offensive line, and by extension offense, in 2009. In addition to their own seniority, there is a lack of veteran laden DL opponents if you consider that ND has more collective starts than half the opponents. Sure, there will be a few rising star types that are tough to handle from the get-go, but overall things really are lining up for a return to 2005/2006 type offensive fireworks. Anything less would be pretty disappointing.