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Controversy Aside, Norman Ready for Michigan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The telephone in Todd Norman’s off-campus apartment has been ringing all week and, when he has been on it, it has been beeping incessantly.

Call waiting, you know.

The buzz has been stronger around campus these days, the food is tasting better and the air is suddenly crisper on the football field.

There have been better days to be a Notre Dame football player, but there sure aren’t many better weeks.

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The buses that will pull away from the university campus this afternoon should provide about three hours of sanctuary for the 60 or so members of the Notre Dame traveling party, three hours when they can tune out the latest controversy involving the program--a new book depicting the Irish and Coach Lou Holtz as a little more Miami-rogue than Our Lady of Perpetual Grace-clean.

As Norman and his mates roll north through farm country and the sun begins to set across the open fields, thoughts of The Book--"Under the Tarnished Dome"--also will fade away.

This, you see, is the week that makes the last strains of summer worth giving up in a couple of Midwestern states.

This week is Michigan.

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“It’s definitely a little more intense than Northwestern week, you can say that for sure,” Norman said one night this week in between call-waiting beeps and clicks. “Definitely, from a football standpoint, everybody’s fired up--from the managers to the coaches to the players to the fans.

“People talk about it in the dining halls, at lunch, every time you walk off the practice field there are people from every newspaper imaginable there. ESPN is here, everybody wants to know what’s happening, what’s going on.”

The No. 11 Irish opened the season last week with a 27-12 victory over Northwestern, but the Irish weren’t particularly inspired.

Besides, beating Northwestern isn’t the reason teen-agers dream of latching onto an Irish football scholarship. When the Irish tee it up Saturday in Ann Arbor, now that’s reason to get your Irish up.

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Despite being a fifth-year senior, Norman has never played in a Notre Dame-Michigan game. Bench time and injuries have been tougher opponents than any Norman faced at Ocean View High School.

“Everybody has talked about the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry since Day 1 when I set foot on campus,” Norman said. “It will be nice to finally play in one.”

Norman is refusing to let the accompanying accusations against Holtz and the Irish taint his day. It angers Norman, he said, that somebody seems to slither out of the woodwork every year to take shots at Notre Dame.

“All I can say about the book is that it takes away from everybody who has ever played here, everybody who has put on a uniform and done it right,” he said. “They preach from Day 1 that on this campus, you do things right and do things better.

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“Something like this, with a negative intention, takes the wind out of your sails. Something like this seems to come up every year, and it’s a bunch of crap. It’s a reflection on me, and I don’t like it. Things are taken out of context. It’s not what Notre Dame is about.”

But this week, everything keeps coming back No. 3 Michigan. It is, after all, a big game from a team and an individual perspective.

Norman, 6 feet 6 and 297 pounds, has switched places on Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive line this season, moving from guard to tackle.

“I was very pleased with Todd Norman’s performance (against Northwestern),” Holtz said. “Todd Norman has become not only a solid football player, but has definitely become a leader of this team. He’s very positive and an excellent competitor.”

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But the coaches, as well as Norman, are keeping one thing in mind before they pronounce the position switch a success.

The team in town last Saturday wasn’t exactly the Dallas Cowboys.

“Todd has shown a lot of progress,” said Joe Moore, Notre Dame offensive line coach. “But Michigan is coming up--the true test is coming this Saturday.”

The transition has been a lot easier on Norman than the first change he encountered at Notre Dame--when the coaches asked him to move from defense to offense.

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“When I switched from defensive line to offensive line in my sophomore year, (Moore) and I weren’t on the same page on what he expected from me and what I expected from myself,” Norman said.

“I was just a punk kid from California and I thought I knew what was going on. I didn’t have a grasp on what needed to get done.”

Said Moore: “Some kids learn early what effort is. It has nothing to do with being lazy or not trying. Some kids’ motor runs faster than others. He was one who had to realize that when his motor was running, he was still in neutral.”

Norman didn’t even play for the Irish until his sophomore year, when he became an offensive lineman, and he only played 1 1/2 minutes the entire season. As a junior, he missed four games because of a sprained knee and a broken thumb.

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Holtz and Moore made the decision to flip Norman to tackle last spring because they felt he moved better than the other linemen.

“He has a chance to be one of the best tackles we’ve had here in a long time,” said Moore, who has sent all but one starting lineman he has worked with in 13 years at Pitt and Notre Dame to the NFL.

Said Norman: “Fundamentally, run-blocking is the same. The only difference is in pass protection. You need to be more agile.”

While Moore will be “very surprised” if Norman doesn’t continue his career in the NFL, Norman said that, for now, he just prefers to concentrate on Buster Stanley and Gannon Dudlar, the two Wolverines who figure to line up over Norman the most.

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"(The NFL) is a lot to think about when you’ve got Michigan on Saturday,” Norman said.

No, it’s not always popular to be a Notre Dame football player these days but, when you’re a college football player, weeks like these are your oxygen.

“It’s a great stadium,” Norman said. “Michigan has great support and great fans. But we always manage to squeak out a few Irish wins. It’s not like Custer--but it’s close.”


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