Notre Dame football: Next man in is Elmer
Fourth-and-two on the Air Force 24. Notre Dame's first offensive march of the football game. Irish trailed, 7-0.
Before the critical play ever had a chance to unfold, Steve Elmer flinched. False start.
Mental and physical mistakes are part of the growth process along the offensive line. Elmer, all 6-foot-6 and 317 pounds of him, is one of those rare athletes who can make a significant contribution at a tender age.
A manchild in a dangerous part of town.
Knowing what to do, and having the physical capabilities to do it, is quite a combination for a rookie in the trenches.
Elmer, who enrolled at Notre Dame last January and had played liberally at guard and tackle through the first half of the season, started his first game at Air Force last Saturday when right guard Christian Lombard was lost for the season with a back injury.
Beyond the very public gaffe on the first series, Elmer's outing — by all accounts — went well.
"He's getting better," fifth-year left tackle Zack Martin said of Elmer. "He got about 40 percent of the snaps against (Southern Cal). The more he sees stuff, that's the big thing. Physically, he can do it."
Elmer will get a chance to prove it again Saturday when he gets the start at right guard against Navy.
"He did fine (after the false start)," Martin said. "He knows we have a lot of confidence in him. He's been here since the spring. We've been light on the o-line since then, so he's been with the (first-team offense) a lot.
"We've gotten reps with him. We're all used to playing with him. He's a very bright kid and very talented."
"I saw a lot of things I need to clean up," Elmer said. "I definitely feel pretty good about it. I think I handled it really well.
"Just do my job (was his pre-game focus). I was thinking about all the situations there might be, but it comes down to we've done enough; we've prepared; we should know what to do."
The penalty, which was followed by a blocked field goal, didn't have a lingering impact.
"It happens," Elmer said. "I'm not happy I jumped, but it happens. I might have heard something (that caused him to jump). I might have just twitched. You've just gotta work past it."
"Play the next play. Stay in the present. That's all there is.
"I've been working really hard at, if something bad happens, you've gotta keep moving. If you let what happened on the last play affect the upcoming play, you're not going to play well. Just block what you see."
The penalty didn't color head coach Brian Kelly's impression of the youngster from Midland, Mich.
"He's a very smart kid," Kelly said of Elmer. "He's not going to have a lot of missed assignments. Very conscientious kid.
"The other plus is he's long. I mean, he's a long, athletic kid. He can make up for some deficiencies in terms of some of his techniques, because of his athleticism. Gotta get stronger, physically stronger. He's still just a freshman, a true freshman. So that physical strength needs to continue to come along and develop.
"He needs to play with a consistent technique. He has a tendency to get out in front of himself a little bit, if you know what I mean. He just needs to slow down a little bit.
"But all in all, if you're asking about a true freshman playing, the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses."
"Slow down, block what you see," Elmer said of his plan. "Sometimes, I'll have a tendency to just jump right out (of his stance) and fly around. Be patient and stay in position."
Patience isn't always easy. Football is a game premised on speed and intensity. Experience and maturity slow the game down for a veteran player. A freshman has to learn to function at mach-1 with his hair on fire.
Elmer isn't the first young guy to deal with such a challenge. Before him, Penn High grad Mike Rosenthal (1995) and Sam Young (2006) made the quick transition from high school to big-time college football.
Rosenthal, a nine-year NFL veteran who is now the head football coach and athletic director at Austin (Texas) High School (his team is 2-6), was inserted at right tackle mid-season when Mike Doughty went down with an injury.
Young, in his fourth year in the NFL after joining the Jacksonville Jaguars three weeks ago, started all 13 games his freshman year.
Neither had an easy time.
"My first start was against Ohio State (a 45-26 loss) at The Horseshoe," said Rosenthal. "It's still one of the top environments I've ever seen.
"I didn't know I was starting until pre-game drills. It was probably better that way.
"(Right tackle) Mike Doughty had a bad ankle and he couldn't go. (Line coach) Joe Moore came up to me and flipped me to the starters during warm-ups. I didn't have any time to really think about it or what it meant.
"It was such a great game. There was no time to think about the magnitude of the situation. All I tried to do was stay in front of people."
Like Elmer, Rosenthal had some adversity in that first start.
"(Early in the fourth quarter) I busted an assignment on an option on a two-point conversion and we were stopped (when quarterback Ron Powlus was tackled)," Rosenthal said. "Everyone is gonna screw up. I got ripped. I never had a problem with getting yelled at.
"The important thing was to be able to move on to the next play. It happens to everybody — freshmen, seniors, rookies, All-Pros. You need to bounce back up.
"The guys who succeed are the guys who overcome those mistakes; guys who are able to have short-term memories. You need to put success or failure behind you and move on."
Young didn't have to wait long for his first bonehead move, either. The first time under the bright lights, he learned a lesson.
"My first game was a Saturday night at Georgia Tech," Young said. "My first missed assignment was on a screen (pass). I couldn't dwell on it. I had to get beyond it, keep playing fast and be physical.
"The great thing, if you have a bad game, you get to play again next week. (Elmer's false start), that's pretty tough sledding."
Given everything that goes into those 60 minutes on Saturday, it's easy to get wrapped up in the periphery and lose focus on the task at hand.
"I try to block everything out and focus on the fact that I just need to do my job and make my blocks," Elmer said. "That's all there is to it. If I let all the, 'You're a freshman; you're a freshman starting on the o-line; you're playing for Notre Dame...' If you think about all that, you'll freeze up. If I just focus on the task at hand, it's more manageable."
"I was lucky," Rosenthal said. "In college I had Ryan Leahy and Dusty Zeigler to guide me. They taught me how to watch film and how to practice. When I got to the (New York) Giants, I had Brian Williams, a 10-year veteran and All-Pro, help me.
"The best advice I got, and the advice I give young guys today, is to 'Just keep your mouth shut and work.' I didn't say a word, but I paid attention. I think the older guys appreciated that.
"It's hard for a lot of young people today. We're in such a me, me, me society. Everybody's got something to say."
"At least the first half of the season, (Elmer) was on the scout team getting reps against the first-team defense," said Young. "The challenge is what you make of it. Everything moves faster. I just focused on playing football because it was something I loved to do.
"Coach (Charlie) Weis, (offensive line) coach (John) Latina and Ryan Harris, (a senior) who I roomed with on the road, helped me get through the tough parts. I learned from all three — the X's and O's, and everything else that was involved.
"You're not going to have a 100 percent grade on every play. The mental aspect of the game was so important.
"My advice would be to play fast, have fun and have a short memory. Everyone is going to make mental errors. Things happen. It's how you respond to them that's important."
"I got a lot of reps against USC and Arizona State, and some others here and there (leading up to that first start)," Elmer said. "It helps. I knew I was in good shape, but from a conditioning standpoint (the other games) helped so I could prove to myself that I could play."
One aspect that hasn't changed from Rosenthal to Elmer has been the demand for excellence on the Irish offensive line.
Kelly said after Elmer's penalty, line coach Harry Hiestand had a special way of getting his message across.
"(Hiestand's) manner is kind of... it's an interesting one in that sometimes it doesn't require much conversation at all. It's just a look. And that look really works quite well with those guys. He's got such a great relationship with them."
Elmer just laughed. Yeah, he got that "look."
Rosenthal's coaching was a little louder.
"Joe Moore was critical of everybody, whether you were a freshman or a senior," Rosenthal said. "He had a standard for the Notre Dame offensive line play, and it was a standard of excellence. No matter who you were, if you were playing on the offensive line, you were expected to live up to that standard. Coach Hiestand seems to be getting that back.
"Playing under Joe Moore, I learned how to work; I learned how to be a man; I learned how to take accountability for my mistakes.
"I wouldn't have had the career I had as a player, or I'm having as a coach, if I hadn't have played for Joe Moore. His philosophy was: Either get to it, or there will be someone else to take the position."
"There wasn't really a time when the light magically went on," Young said. "It was more about the journey than any special moment.
"The year before, we went to a BCS bowl. The focus for everybody was to keep that standard of excellence.
"Coming into a new environment was difficult. Coming in early in the summer helped. There was study hall, early workouts — things that upperclassmen don't have to worry about.
"I know I was more sore than I ever remember being in high school. Sometimes a young guy can lose sight of all the responsibilities he has."
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
No matter what the year, a false start on fourth-and-two can be an amazing learning experience for a freshman offensive lineman.
Elmer just passed his first test.