While the entire Notre Dame football team is looking for redemption after last season’s miserable 4-8 campaign, the Irish offensive line is an area that’s likely even more focused on getting things back to the way they were just two years ago. That’s because this area has traditionally offered plenty of talent that eventually finds its way into the NFL.
A Rollercoaster Ride
If the recent past is any indicator, an upswing is in order, since a mediocre 2014 up front led to a resurgence the following year, which then led to last season’s forgettable slide. With four returnees among the starters, the chances for some distinct improvement seems to be much more likely.
Of course, whether or not that improvement reaches elite status will be determined by the scoreboard. Another losing campaign relegates this unit to also-ran status, while surging back into the discussion for a major bowl berth will be a testament to the commitment the group has offered.
Among those returning starters are two All-American candidates who both happen to reside on the left side of the line. Tackle Mike McGlinchey is in his final year, while guard Quenton Nelson could potentially return in 2018, with McGlinchey’s struggles last year when it came to getting flagged for illegal procedure a nagging issue. That was one of the reasons that he had to at least temporarily hold back from entering the NFL Draft.
Despite that down year, McGlinchey is still considered a solid candidate to be chosen in the first round. That’s due in part because he’s 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, which can help blot out plenty of defenders. The fact that he’s shifting over after having previously manned the right side gives him a chance to show off the athleticism that Brian Kelly’s been praising since the big man arrived.
Nelson arrived in South Bend as a five-star recruit and also is a massive presence on the line at 6-foot-5, 330 pounds, He’s been strong in the area of pass blocking, having allowed just three sacks during his time in the trenches, yet the woes of 2016 made any such stats irrelevant.
The fact that the most talented offensive linemen are manning the blind side of sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush should be a comforting thought to Notre Dame fans. One simple reason is because Wimbush will already have enough pressure on him to reverse last season’s indigestion that he doesn’t also need to have his head on a swivel to stay safe.
Yet it’s the running game that needs to make major strides after taking a steep drop of 52 spots in the area of rushing offense. Also important is to fix the problems that surfaced with respect to both getting the job done both on third down and near the goal line. Upticks in either or both areas can be windows into whether or not that elite term can be bandied about.
To turn things around, McGlinchey and Nelson will be joined by center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars and Tommy Kraemer at right tackle. The potential that they have rivals that of their other fellow starters, though they currently lack the level of experience of both McGlinchey and Nelson.
The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Mustipher was shifted to center last year after having seen reserve time at guard and went through a few bumpy patches along the way, most notably in the swamp last year at North Carolina State. In that rain-soaked clash, some key errors didn’t escape the wrath of Kelly, who went so far as to describe the snapping as atrocious.
Moving over to the right guard spot will be Bars, who is still seeking to find a way to match his potential with strong production. At 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Bars can certainly open up holes or offer protection, with this past offseason reportedly resulting in an improvement in his mobility and explosiveness. That latter component even led Kelly to use the term elite to describe the level Bars might reach during the 2017 season.
Right tackle was reportedly a battle between Kraemer and Eichenberg, but Kraemer has been running with the first team since the spring and will get the start against Temple on September 2. At 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, Kraemer’s potential was enough to allow for the shift of Bars to the inside. However, using that size to keep Wimbush healthy and opening up holes for the running game will end up being his calling cards.
The Depth Issue
Other players like Eichenberg, Jimmy Byrne, and Hunter Bivins are part of the depth that Kelly has at his disposal. Kelly mentioned on Thursday that freshman and early enrollee Aaron Banks won’t redshirt either. Of course, if these names somehow end up at the top of the depth charts, it’s indicative that the season is again headed off the rails and Kelly’s job status is questionable.
The Bottom Line
With new offensive coordinator Chip Long installing an uptempo offense, all of the aforementioned potential will need to come into play for the Notre Dame offensive line. The expectation is that establishing the running game will be a paramount focus, allowing for Wimbush to avoid getting burdened with added responsibilities at such an early stage.
While that certainly doesn’t preclude using some impressive receiving options along the way, the true litmus test for determining if the Irish offensive line will rank among the elite will be the stat sheet with respect to rushing yardage. If the needle hasn’t moved forward from last year, another long season is likely in store. On the other hand, if the chains are moving and Notre Dame is able to chew up the clock, then that elite status becomes justified.