Ah, the Notre Dame football legend. The names come rolling off your tongue: Knute Rockne, Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung, Joe Montana, Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, Manti Te’o, Sam Young ...
Even avid Notre Dame fans might not be aware that Young, the Bills’ offensive lineman, holds the school record for career starts. Young started the opener as a true freshman for the Fighting Irish in 2006 and went on to start all 50 games in his four years.
He hasn’t started a game since. Young, a sixth-round draft choice of the Cowboys in 2010, never panned out in Dallas. He was picked up on waivers by the Bills last year and played four games on special teams. Young has seen spot duty in eight games this season as a backup guard and tackle.
But on Sunday, Young will get his first start since college. An injury to second-teamer Chris Hairston will force Young into action at right tackle against the Rams. Starter Erik Pears went on injured reserve a month ago.
It’s hardly the ideal opponent for a player making his first start at right tackle. St. Louis is fourth in the league with 34 sacks. Young — at 6-foot-8, the tallest Bill — will be lining up opposite Chris Long, the Rams’ disruptive left end.
“Hey, I don’t get to pick who I go against,” said Young, a South Florida native. “I’m just told to do my job.”
Young can’t pick who lines up next to him, either. When he looks to his left, he’ll see a guy with even less NFL experience. David Snow, an undrafted rookie from Texas, played in his first NFL game last week against the Jags after center Eric Wood went down with a knee injury.
Snow will be making the first start of his career at right guard against the Rams. Kraig Urbik, the usual starter at right guard, will shift to center to replace Wood. So, in what has been a annual rite, injuries have the Bills playing musical chairs on the O-line.
For some reason, injuries to the offensive linemen come in pairs, like creatures onto Noah’s Ark. Cordy Glenn and Kraig Urbik went down in the first New England game. Chad Rinehart and Erik Pears went out for the year after Tennessee. Now they lose Wood and Hairston in the same game.
“It’s something we’ve had to deal with on more than one occasion,” said Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. “We’ll see on Sunday. I know they’re willing to do it, and I can’t sit there and worry about all those little things. We can do some stuff to help them out in terms of schemes, but at some point they have to go out there and be productive and win those one-on-one battles.”
The Bills’ passing game has struggled over the last month or so. The run carried the day against Jacksonville. It’s unlikely to go so well against the Rams. They’ll probably overload against the run to the Bills’ left side, hoping to create long down-and-distance situations.
That’s when the Rams will put the Bills’ reshuffled pass protection to the test. Even in the best of times, Fitzpatrick often has to get rid of the ball quickly against the rush. Like the Democrats in Congress, he could face a lot of problems from the right.
“Long is a phenomenal player,” Young said. “I’m gonna have to do a lot of studying this week, the tendencies and what he likes to do. It’s a great challenge for me. I’ve been here a couple of years now. I’m really just excited to get a chance to show what I can do and help the team.”
Snow, who started 32 games at Texas, had a similarly humbling path to his first start. He was signed by the Bills as a free agent after being passed over in last year’s draft.
“It really doesn’t make a difference how you got here,” Snow said.
“You just got to perform when you get here. Buffalo is such a different place from Texas, clear across the United States. We got Canada up here, we got Mexico down there. It’s crazy how polar opposite it is. But I love the fans up here. Great football atmosphere and I just love being here.”
Snow was assigned to the practice squad in early September, released in October and re-signed the next day. He was promoted to the 53-man roster Oct. 19. He didn’t get into a game until Wood went down last week.
“Well, that’s the NFL, especially with offensive linemen,” said Snow, who graduated from Texas with a degree in corporate communications. “People go down, people get hurt. You’ve just got to be ready to step up.”
Snow has played eight snaps in his career. Young was on the field for 24 plays last week. They say they’re not intimidated.
Young said it’s tough to go from a four-year starter at Notre Dame to a bit performer, waiting for a chance. He need only look around the locker room to find evidence of what can happen to a player.
Stevie Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick who sat for two years before getting a shot, has the locker to his right. Fred Jackson and George Wilson were undrafted. Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round pick who waited six years to become a starter.
“Go around the league and there’s guys that have come from the practice squad and been great players,” Young said. “There’s first-round busts and first-round great and anything in between. I’ve learned in my time that it’s important to get your foot in the door.
“It’s what you make of it when you get in the door that matters.”