Having at least one more year to fulfill the promise that was first envisioned for him even before he donned his first Notre Dame uniform, Alex Bars will have a different perspective when he takes the field for the Irish in 2017. That’s because he’s being shifted to guard, where he looks to build on his first season as a member of the starting lineup.
When the 6-foot-6, 320-pound Bars arrived in South Bend, fans had every reason to embrace his potential, primarily due to the fact that he was a highly-sought after offensive lineman out of Nashville. Besides the Big 10 trio of Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State trying to recruit him, he was also the target of SEC schools like Tennessee and LSU.
Bars already had Irish roots in him, with his father, Joe, having been part of Gerry Faust’s first Notre Dame recruiting class in 1981. Yet he was the only one of his three similarly-sized brothers to make it to South Bend, with those siblings eventually attending Michigan and Penn State.
As a freshman in 2014, he was limited to scout team work, with the expectation being that he’d be inserted into the starting unit the following year. However, when 2015 arrived, he started just two of six games at guard before a midseason broken ankle against Southern Cal abruptly ended his season. Prior to the start part of last year’s miserable 4-8 campaign, Brian Kelly saddled Bars with pressure about how gifted he was, with Bars acquitting himself fairly well at right tackle.
Reason for Optimism
While Bars certainly possesses the size to stay on the outside, the Irish coaching staff made the decision to shift him inside to right guard. That’s not an indictment of Bars’ talent, but rather a way to find regular playing time for a pair of sophomores at tackle: Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer.
Both Kelly and Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand know that if the experiment ends in failure, Bars can be switched back to the tackle slot. However, new offensive coordinator Chip Long is expected to take advantage of both Bars’ ability to run block and the ample skills of Josh Adams and the stable of talent that makes up the running game.
Using that strategy will take pressure off Brandon Wimbush as he takes over behind center. By opening up holes for the running game, Bars and the rest of the line will allow Wimbush to more easily transition his raw talent, especially in the early weeks of season. That will be especially important in games against Georgia and a road clash at Michigan State.
Reason for Doubt
In his first year in a starting capacity, Bars largely did what was expected of him. Yet the collective dropoff in production on this unit last season, in comparison to the 2015 effort, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the 2017 season. Some new blood will be injected into the starting unit, yet there’s no guarantee that it will flourish as expected.
If Eichenberg and Kraemer both struggle to literally find their footing in the trenches, it will undoubtedly put more pressure on Wimbush throughout the year. If that pressure reaches a breaking point, it likely means that Bars will be moved back to the outside in an effort to salvage this side of the line.
That could be a problem against teams with solid edge rushers, which was a Bars weakness in 2016. Facing teams like Georgia, Southern Cal and Stanford, with a trip to Miami also on the schedule, Notre Dame’s margin for error is microscopic, with that sort of disaster scenario not what Brian Kelly needs. Especially considering that his job is potentially on the line with another poor year.
Still, Irish watchers who prefer the glass-half-full approach have noted parallels between the 2015 and 2017 offensive lines. Two years ago, wiping away a poor effort from the year before resulted in a standout campaign for this group, something that’s possible with the level of talent returning.
In the case of Bars, his versatility and athleticism are reasons to embrace that optimistic approach and his massive size could open holes inside that Adams and his cohorts can exploit. Hiestand bluntly noted that the move to guard for Bars could be seen as a gamble by outsiders but that it served the team’s interests for the upcoming season.
Bars has every reason to take advantage of this opportunity, since he can conceivably declare for the 2018 NFL Draft with a standout campaign. That’s a lofty goal for a second-year starter, though continued struggles by the team may put such career pursuits on the backburner until the following year. Still, Bars does appear to be on the threshold of a breakout campaign this season.