The Willingham Effect - Offensive Line Recruiting Under Ty and Charlie

Michael CollinsAnalyst IJuly 13, 2008

I wished Tyrone Willingham well.  I believe he is a generally well-intentioned person with good moral values.  To his credit, he has never said anything against Notre Dame, who finished paying his five year contract last year.  Personal beliefs have played a big part in the Willingham firing drama.  I want my beliefs up front.   

Willingham’s impact on Notre Dame’s offensive line was devastating and contributed to his early departure.  Offensive line play is crucial for success in football. The adages – “Control the ball”, “Establish the run”, “Protect the passer” – come down to dominant offensive line play.  Successful teams have an experienced offensive line with upper class substitutes when starters are injured. 

In Willingham’s first season, 2002, Notre Dame’s Senior offensive line protected new skill position players – Carlyle Holliday at QB, Ryan Grant at RB, Arnez Battle at WR -and kept the Irish in every game.  Notre Dame had five talented senior starters on the offensive line.  Black, Mahon, Faine and Curtin were drafted into the NFL.  Mahonand Faine are still NFL starters in 2008.  Black is a reserve and still playing.  Curtin played two years for the Packers. 

ND's Offensive Line - When Davie Left 

2002              1st Team              2nd Team           Reserves          Davie


Seniors - 7    Jordan Black-Sr       LeVoir-So          Giles-So               Bonelli

Juniors - 1    Sean Mahon-Sr         Gillis-Sr           Mitchell-So            Morton

Sophs - 4     Jeff Faine-Sr             Gillis-Sr           Molinaro-Jr            Rairdon

                   Sean Milligan-Sr      Scarola-Sr                                    Ryan

                  Brendan Curtin-Sr  Stevenson-So                                Santucci


Total - 17.

6 incoming freshmen in 2003. 6 departures in 2003.                                                      

Willingham started at Notre Dame in the first week of January with only four weeks until Signing Day.  The 2002 recruiting class had committed under Davie.  Arguably, Willingham won in 2002 with Davie’s players.  With a 10-3 year, the Irish should have been very successful on the recruiting trail.  Tyrone’s time to step up and continue to fill out the OL was 2003. 

Willingham's First Recruiting OL Recruiting Class

2003            1st Team            2nd Team           Reserves              Willingham


Seniors - 2     LeVoir-Jr           Ryan-Soph       Santucci-Soph      Ryan Harris

Juniors - 4    Stevenson-Jr       Mitchell-Jr        Mattes-Soph       John Sullivan

Sophs - 6       Giles-Jr            Morton-Soph

Fresh – 2     Milligan-Sr(5th)    Rairdon-Soph

                   Molinaro-Sr        Bonelli-Soph

Total - 14    

1 returning starter. 2 departures in 2004. 2 incoming freshmen in 2004

The Offensive Line is not only younger in 2003 but has less experience.  The pending departures of two seniors are replaced by only two recruits. Willingham banked two quality OL recruits, both from Notre Dame strongholds. Harris and Sullivan have both moved on to the NFL.  This OL recruiting class lacked depth, though, and could have been much better.  Joe Thomas waited until almost Signing Day to choose Wisconsin.  Mike Jones chose Iowa late.  Willingham had no backup plans.  Willingham’s habit was not to give out his first offers until the summer, way behind the recruiting curve.   He and his staff from Stanford were getting used to the Midwest.  “Could have been” may be the epitaph on Willingham’s offensive line recruiting at Notre Dame.

The tip of the iceberg of the offensive line – the starters – changed in 2004, but the substantive changes were the melting of the bottom of the iceberg.  The second team had less maturity and depth, beginning to limit ability to redshirt freshmen or compensate for injuries.  Incoming freshman need 2-3 yrs to bulk up, learn plays, practice fundamentals and play as a unit before being pressed into service.

2004 OL recruiting becomes a priority – or should have been.

Willingham's 2004 Class - OL Recruiting Busts

2004                         1st Team                2nd Team          Reserves        Recruits

Seniors - 2              Harris - Soph         Bonelli - Jr        Santucci - Jr   Chauncey Incarnato

Juniors - 5             Morton – Soph        Mitchell - Sr      Mattes - Jr     John Kadous

Soph – 4 (3-RS)       Giles - Sr             Sullivan – Fr

Freshmen-3(1-RS)    LeVoir - Jr           Stevenson - Jr    Ryan - Soph

                                                      Rairdon - Soph

Total - 14         

4 returning starters for 2005. 2 departures. 2 incoming freshmen for 2005.                

In 2004, Willingham loses miserably in recruiting offensive line help.  Neither Kadous nor Incarnato were sought after by the top programs.  Allen Smith, a top tackle who visited the Irish a number of times, chooses Stanford over Notre Dame because he “could nourish my full potential as a football player and a student”.  High school coaches are sending their players elsewhere, having not connected with the new staff.  Rumors spout up that Willingham is not returning coaches’ calls about their prospects for the Irish.  Prospects complain of not hearing from the Irish coaching staff for extended periods and choose other schools.  The Irish faithful prepare for spring knowing they will have only ten offensive linemen until the two recruits arrive before football season. 

2005 - OL Recruits Go Elsewhere 

2005                 1st Team            2nd Team         Reserves              Recruits

Seniors-2         Harris-Jr             Rairdon-Jr      Incarnato-Fr(RS)   Paul Duncan

Juniors-6          Morton-Jr          Santucci-Jr     Kadous-Fr(RS) 

Sophs-1           Sullivan-                                                         Mike Turkovich

Freshmen-2         Soph(RS)                                                         

                     Stevenson-Sr      Bonelli-Jr

                       LeVoir-Sr          Mattes-Jr

Total - 11      

4 returning starters. 2 departures for 2006. 1 transfer. 1 injury. 2 incoming freshmen.

In 2005, Willingham again lost out on top recruits.  Especially painful were two from Chicago, one from Cleveland and one from an Irish pipeline in Minnesota (Cretin-Durham) that sent Ryan Harris and Rashon Powers-Neal to Notre Dame.  Three chose Iowa.  One chose Ohio State.  Willingham had no contingency plans.  

One recruit, Thomas Bemenderfer, from the South Bend area, badly wants to go to Notre Dame.  He goes to Northwestern when he is rebuffed.

What was Willingham thinking?  Did he delegate O-line recruiting?  Did he place all his eggs in one basket?  Was he just planning on fluttering off when his five years were done, leaving the offensive line cupboard bare for the next coach in 2007?  Davie had left Tyrone stocked with offensive linemen. 

Sports columnists talked about how the Irish are irrelevant, can’t recruit big time players anymore, and have academic standards that are too tough for today’s recruits.  The only offensive linemen he had recruited for the 2005 class was Paul Duncan.  Willingham is fired at Notre Dame – and hired two weeks later at Washington.

Willingham’s total offensive line recruiting in three years at Notre Dame – three!!!  One per year!!!  Ryan Harris, John Sullivan and Paul Duncan.  The iceberg has melted from the bottom up and is about to tip over. 

Charlie Weis Arrives

New coach Charlie Weis immediately acts on the deficiency, reviews ND’s chances with prospects less than six weeks to signing day with most linemen already committed, and gets a commitment from  Mike Turkovich.  Turkovich is one of Pennsylvania’s top players and had not been offered by Willingham.  Weis is still coaching New England prior to the Super Bowl but spending hours after each Patriot day finalizing his coaching staff, reviewing recruits and calling prospects.

Prior to the start of the 2005 season, Kadous suffered a career-ending injury.  Incarnato - a 3 star recruit - transfers to Indiana.  The Irish get no OL recruits from the 2004 class.   The number of football players on scholarship at Notre Dame prior to the 2005 season is at historic lows, exceeded in NCAA history only by a few schools who suffered the NCAA “death penalty” for violations.   

One of the incoming freshmen will play on the 2nd team.  Ryan Harris does not have a redshirt season.  The spring 2005 Blue-Gold game is offense v. defense due to inability to field two offensive lines. 

2006                1st Team             2nd Team           Reserves              Recruits

Seniors-6        Harris-Sr           Rairdon-Sr        Turkovich-Soph      Sam Young(1st team)

Juniors-1       Santucci-Sr         Bonelli-Sr                                    Dan Wenger (2nd team)

Sophs-2         Sullivan-Jr          Wenger-Fr                                  Chris Stewart

Freshmen-6    Morton-Sr(5th)   Duncan-Soph                                Bartley Webb

                    Young-Fr            Mattes-Sr                                   Eric Olsen

                                                                                            Matt Carufel

Total - 15                                        

6 incoming recruits. 6 departures for 2007

Sam Young is the first freshman in the history of Notre Dame to start on the offensive line from the first game of the season.  All Weis’s recruits are four or five star rated except Webb.  The new recruits have chosen Notre Dame over Florida, Iowa, Arkansas, Oklahoma State.  Weis crisscrossed the county in the spring, reestablished relationships with high school coaches especially in former Irish strongholds in Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pennsylvania, and extended recruiting into Florida, California and Texas.

Bemenderfer transfers from Northwestern to Notre Dame.  Sullivan comes back for a fifth year rather than go to the NFL.  The base of the iceberg is being built with quantity and quality.

But the perfect storm is about to hit Notre Dame’s offensive line in 2007. 

The Perfect Storm Hits the Offensive Line 


                            1st Team            2nd Team           Reserves              Recruits

Seniors - 1             Young-Soph       Romine-Fresh         Webb               Lane Clelland

Juniors - 3              Olsen-Soph        Wenger-Soph        Carufel           Trevor Robinson

Sophs - 4              Sullivan-Sr(5th)   Bemenderfer-Jr       Matt Romine     Braxton Cave

Freshmen - 4        Turkovich-Jr         Stewart-Soph        Andrew Nuss       Mike Golic

                           Duncan-Jr            Taylor Dever        Emeka Nwankwo

                                                                                 (to Def)

Total - 12       

2 returning starters from ‘06. 1 departure for 2008. 1 transfer. 1 injury. 4 incoming recruits

All of Davie’s recruits are gone.  In 2007, Weis’s offensive line consists of three Willingham recruits, Weis’s seven recruits – one junior and six sophomores, and his four incoming freshmen. 

Webb suffers career-ending injury.  Carufel transfers part way into the season.  Even with those losses, Weis has recruited nine top offensive linemen in two years to Willingham’s three in three years. 

Weis uses multiple combinations of offensive linemen to find the right mix.   The quarterback is a freshman and most skill position players are underclassmen.   

Youth and inexperience show against ten bowl-bound opponents.  Remember the adages?  In 2007, Notre Dame’s opponents had the ball almost four minutes more per game and had 59 more first downs rushing.  The Irish averaged 2.1 yards per carry, converted on 31% of their third downs and gave up a record 58 sacks.     

Weis redshirts Dever - as well as Nuss and Nwanko, who are both needed on a thin defensive line.  Nuss will return to offense in 2008.   The spring Blue-Gold game is again offense v. defense due to lack of depth in the offensive line.  The offensive line approaches the nadir of 2005 with twelve players, but enthusiasm for the future is on the upswing.  Willingham’s effect has almost waned with the end of the 2007 season.

2008                  1st Team             2nd Team                 Reserves         '09 Recruits

Seniors - 3       Duncan-Sr          Romine-Soph           Lane Clelland      Alex Bullard

Juniors - 4        Olsen-Jr             Turkovich-Sr         T. Robinson-Fr      Chris Watt   

Sophs - 3        Wenger-Jr        Bemenderfer-Sr         Braxton Cave-Fr   Zach Martin

Freshmen–4    Stewart-Jr           Turkovich-Sr             Nuss-Soph          

                      Young-Jr            Dever-Soph             Mike Golic-Fr

Total - 14   

4 returning starters from ‘07. 3 departures for 2009? 4 incoming recruits (Reserves except Nuss)

Offensive Line Status - 2008

In 2008, Weis has four returning starters with the fifth, Wenger, switching to his natural position, center, to replace Sullivan, after getting significant playing time as guard last year.  The three seniors will be eligible to return for fifth years in 2009.  Clelland, from Maryland, chose Notre Dame over Michigan and Virginia.  Robinson, from Nebraska, chose ND over Nebraska.  Cave and Golic were Irish as soon as they were offered. 

Notre Dame is now recruiting across the nation.  Their multiple football camps in the spring are very well attended by top recruits, including juniors.  The high school coaches football camp is packed.  Weis and his coaches stay in frequent contact with coaches and recruits, as allowed.  Last fall, Weis attended a Cretin-Durham (MN) game not to see his top wide receiver recruit, Michael Floyd, who was hurt.  He was there to see a 2010 offensive line recruit, Seantrel Henderson, a sophomore at the time. 

The Irish have secured commitments so far in 2008 from two of the top offensive guards in the nation.  Alex Bullard chose ND over Tennessee.  Chris Watt, a five star recruit, chose the Irish over Ohio State.  Three of the nation’s top offensive tackles for 2010, who attended Notre Dame’s summer camp this year, have received verbal offers from Weis.   Formal offers will be extended on September 1.  Two more top 2010 linemen are sons of former Notre Dame players.  The Irish coaching staff have almost completed rebuilding the offensive line from the bottom up.    


    Mack and Mustipher Named to Watch Lists

    Notre Dame Football logo
    Notre Dame Football

    Mack and Mustipher Named to Watch Lists

    Slap the Sign
    via Slap the Sign

    Bama Picked to Win SEC in Preseason Media Poll

    College Football logo
    College Football

    Bama Picked to Win SEC in Preseason Media Poll

    Kyle Newport
    via Bleacher Report

    Brian Kelly Should Be on Hot Seat in 2018

    Notre Dame Football logo
    Notre Dame Football

    Brian Kelly Should Be on Hot Seat in 2018

    Saturday Blitz
    via Saturday Blitz

    FSU Players Being Held Accountable Under Taggart

    College Football logo
    College Football

    FSU Players Being Held Accountable Under Taggart

    Wayne McGahee III
    via Tallahassee Democrat