Second-year player Sean Mahan has handled the move from guard to center quite well
"It's never too early to talk about Notre Dame-USC."
That's the measured if somewhat biased opinion of Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver and former Golden Domer Tim Brown, spoken on Thursday, 16 days before the latest Trojans-Irish showdown.
Notre Dame has a rich football history, of course, and it's long-running series with USC is one of the most storied rivalries ever. There have been legendary games and famous performers on both sides.
And while Brown is one of the most high-profile Notre Dame players ever, he isn't the only Buccaneer who can speak to the rivalry. There is also starting left tackle Derrick Deese, a Trojan almost a decade and a half ago. And, now starting two spots away from Deese on the Bucs' offensive line, there is center Sean Mahan, a Fighting Irish player as recently as 2002.
Mahan, one of the many NFL players to come out of those two schools, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2003, the 168th selection overall. Like most fifth-rounders, his immediate professional profile was relatively low. Now, however, he has been thrust into an important role in a game that carries the type of weight typical of a Notre Dame-USC affair.
A year and a half later after Mahan's selection, the Buccaneers are awfully glad they grabbed the standout interior lineman when they did. Mahan's performance at center against Kansas City last week, after John Wade was hurt on the Bucs' first offensive play, helped Tampa Bay's offense maintain its ever-improving level of play. With Mahan in the middle, the Bucs racked up 130 rushing yards, 288 passing yards and 34 points.
It was exactly the type of performance a team hopes to get out of a reserve, the kind that allows the rest of the team to continue operating at the same efficiency.
"It wasn't just me," said Mahan. "As an O-line we really communicated and played well. (Quarterback Brian) Griese obviously had a great game. Everyone stepped up. Whenever an injury like John Wade's happens that needs to happen. It wasn't just me – it was everyone stepping up together."
Mahan's sharing of the credit is both accurate and admirable, but one cannot overstate how important his strong performance was in the Bucs' narrow win over the Chiefs. Locked in a shootout and facing Kansas City blitzes on seemingly every play, the Bucs couldn't afford tentative or error-filled play from their center, who calls the blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage. Both Griese and Head Coach Jon Gruden were thoroughly impressed by Mahan's play, and they have the utmost confidence that he can continue to perform well.
A guard in college, Mahan has made the transition to center smoothly and without major difficulty. This may have been eased by his senior season at Notre Dame, when new Head Coach Tyrone Willingham installed a hybrid of the West Coast offense during Mahan's senior year. While Willingham's attack is no doubt different than Gruden's, there are some shared concepts. Mahan and his fellow linemen picked up the scheme quickly and helped the Irish average 143 yards per game on the ground.
"That definitely made things easier," said Mahan. "We run a lot of similar plays, protections and techniques. Having experience with it beforehand really helps a lot."
Mahan and the rest of the offensive line will surely be tested today against the unpredictable and aggressive Atlanta defense. Defense Coordinator Ed Donatell and Head Coach Jim Mora are known for their creative blitz packages and pressure fronts, so they will surely test Mahan's newfound responsibility to make calls for the O-line.
"Knowing that you have to make the protection and running-play calls for the O-line is a big part of playing center," said Mahan. "Other than that, guard and center are pretty similar."
The Falcons' front seven can be imposing, especially on the inside. Defensive tackle Rod Coleman is quick and explosive, as is Chad Lavalais. Nose tackle Ed Jasper is a rock-solid run-stuffer.
Coleman, in particular, has given opponents fits in the middle, and he's back this week after a three-game absence due to a knee injury. If the Buccaneers hope to duplicate last week's success on the ground and through the air, they know they must neutralize Coleman. Some of the onus for slowing down the Falcon D-line will fall on Mahan's shoulders, as he must make pre-snap adjustments on many plays.
According to Griese, Mahan did a fine job last week of adjusting to Kansas City's pressure fronts. If that is any indication, the Buccaneers O-line will be in good shape against the equally aggressive Falcons.
Coming from Notre Dame, Mahan knows what it's like to play with high expectations. As he has quickly learned since joining the Buccaneers, the goal in Tampa is no different from that in South Bend, and that is simply to emerge victorious.
"I want to help this team win every game," said Mahan. "Our goal is to get to the Super Bowl just like everyone else."