Merandi exemplifies leadership
By BRIAN KESSLER
As dusk approaches, a long day of football practice finally ends.
The players slowly funnel out of Cartier field in groups, discussing the day's events and shooting the breeze. But in the back corner of the practice field, senior center John Merandi continues to work with the offensive line unit, preparing them for Saturday's game against Michigan State.
"It's a big role for me," the 6-foot-3, 300 pounder said. "I was the young guy last year, but now it's my turn to lead by example. Every week you have to go out and get the guys ready to play. We're working extra and making sure our technique gets better this week because Michigan State is a good team."
Last season, Merandi was the only non-returnee on the offensive line. He gained valuable experience from Jerry Wisne, Luke Petitgout and Mike Rosenthal — all of whom were '99 NFL draft picks. As a junior, Merandi started all 12 games and logged the most minutes of anyone on the squad.
Now Merandi has inherited and accepted the role of teacher to Notre Dame's inexperienced linemen.
"The best experience is game experience and that is what these guys are finding out," he said. "It's adjustment. You get out on the field and it's 100 times faster. That's why practice is so important. When you get out there, you have to know what you're doing when you're blocking."
Merandi has been a mentor for players like freshman Jeff Faine, a USA Today first-team prep All-American who looks to be the future at center for the Irish.
"He's been a tremendous teacher," Faine said. "He's probably been the best influence on me since I've been here, helping me learn the plays. He's been one of the greatest leaders I've ever played under and has taught me everything I know since I've been here. John Merandi is a great player, a great center and a great leader."
Merandi has taken Faine and the rest of the young o-line under his wing and the players genuinely look up to him.
"He's a great leader when it comes to helping out the unit and trying to get the unit straight," Faine said. "I'm trying to work to be like him. He's all I have to look to. He's a great center and a preseason All-American. Why not try to emulate him and be like him?"
After all, Merandi was ranked seventh nationally among centers in '99 preseason rankings by Lindy's and was named a first-team preseason All American by Street and Smith's magazine in conjuction with the Walter camp foundation.
"They are great but the biggest award I wanted was to win a national championship and be 10-2," Merandi said. "That's my number one goal and what I'm looking forward to."
While it seems that a national championship will elude the Irish once again this season, Merandi may be eligible for a fifth-year and another run at a title.
"I'm not sure yet, so I just have to prepare like it's my last year here," he said.
Merandi, however, clearly isn't writing off this season and he continues to lead the Irish into battle in the trenches. So far, the offensive line has held up reasonably well for a young corps.
The Irish withstood Michigan's big, talented defensive line and had a good showing against Purdue. Costly penalties, however, have overshadowed many of the positives.
"We've done some good things, but I also think we've made some mistakes that need to be corrected," Merandi said. "Each week you have to try to get better. That's our job as seniors to make sure the guys don't setttle for anything but the best. You have to be a vocal leader, but the biggest thing is to lead by example."
Merandi is enjoying his role as a leader in the Irish huddle.
"I think it's exciting," he said. "It's a great opportunity because you get to direct traffic out there and make sure everyone is on the same page."
Head coach Bob Davie realizes the importance of Merandi's role on the team.
"John Merandi is key," Davie said. "We need to establish our fullback and our center is a big part of that. Plus, John, he is kind of the elder statesman in there. And you see that our offensive tackles struggled a little bit with Purdue's defensive ends. They will even get a bigger taste of it this week with Michigan State. So that whole offensive line and in particular John Merandi's leadership, I think that is key."
All Sports Stories for Friday, September 17, 1999