We continue our preseason series comparing units from the previous season with the offensive line. Last week I looked at the quarterbacks and skill position units. If you read those two articles, you saw I’m optimistic about what the 2017 offense can do from a skill player perspective. Long story short, there are weapons everywhere with a top 50 player under center for Chip Long‘s offense. But, without a solid offensive line, all that can be for not.
A quick note: These evaluations are not done in a vacuum. It isn’t a simple, player for player look down the depth chart. I take into account situation, coaching changes, team dynamics etc. This was especially true at quarterback. Brandon Wimbush is not a second round draft pick right now and we all believed Kizer was a top 10 pick at this time last year. But, I do have the benefit of hindsight. I know about the quarterback battle that sabotaged the team. I know about the dysfunction in the weight room. Those things are gone. Hence, I think the quarterback position is in a better spot to succeed this year, even given the drop in talent.
So without further adieu, the offensive line.
Better: Mike McGlinchey
All things considered, McGlinchey was one of the most disappointing players on the Notre Dame roster in 2016. Sliding from right to left tackle replacing first round pick Ronnie Stanly, it was the expectation McGlinchey would pick up where his predecessor left off.
That’s not how it went.
McGlinchey looked uncomfortable on the left side, lacked the signature power we saw in seasons prior, and was plagued by multiple procedure penalties throughout the year. According to College Football Film Room, McGlinchey registered the lowest pass blocking percentage among the front line players, at 96%, a a drop from his 98.8% in 2015.
McGlinchey determined early last season he was going to spurn the NFL Draft to return to the Irish for his final season. He has taken advantage of the new strength program, refined his technique, and is more prepared to be the player Notre Dame needs him to be. Just the improvements in the weight room should have fans optimistic. Is it a surprise a subpar strength program led to a subpar line? It shouldn’t be.
McGlinchey leads a line that could border on elite.
Not Sure: Tommy Kraemer
By all accounts, as of this writing, the redshirt freshman will be the starting right tackle in 2017. He’s pretty much been running with the 1’s since the spring and continues to dominate the first team reps. There is some debate among Notre Dame insiders as to whether tackle is Kraemer’s best position. The calculus seems to be he is too talented not to play somewhere, and the Irish coaches want to maximize Alex Bars at guard, who we will get to in a bit.
Kraemer had a rough spring game, he was roasted by Daelin Hayes on a couple of pass rushes. He is said to be better in this area in fall camp, and surprise, he has taken advantage of Matt Balis and reshaped his body. Kraemer happens to be the highest ranked recruit on the Notre Dame roster, the #28 player nationally in 2016. Notre Dame is hoping that pedigree shines through, as it is he is the wild card on the 2017 line.
Better: Nelson and Bars
Left guard Quenton Nelson might be the best lineman on the team and Alex Bars replaces Colin McGovern/Mark Harrell at right guard.It’s a no contest.
Bars struggled in pass pro at right tackle last season, but is said to be more comfortable playing inside. Nelson also had his struggles–this is the case for the entire line by the way–but his top level play last year was the highest on the team. The expectation is for him to improve into his senior season after receiving a first round grade from NFL draft scouts last year.
Again this group isn’t too complicated. All the negative intangibles from last season are gone and Notre Dame added a top line talent to one of the guard spots. Should be one of the strongest units on the team.
Better: Sam Mustipher
One of the pleasant surprises thus far in fall camp is the reports on Mustipher’s progress at center. There was talk Mustipher would receive a challenge from the now departed Tristen Hoge for the starting center spot. Mustipher had some struggles last season, was far from dominant, and of course there is the infamous NC State snapping game.
Mustipher is reportedly playing with better power, a greater comfort and confidence level, and the snapping hasn’t been an issue. There has even been talk of a Jeff Faine type of season in the works, which if true, oh boy.
The line returns four starters, who happen to be the top four players from the season before, went through an overhaul of the strength program, and retained the line coach that has produced a litany of high draft picks. The only question is how high of a level will this line reach? Can they be elite or just good? The 2015 unit was borderline elite and it led to the best rushing season since the Holtz era. Can this group, with an offensive coordinator who loves tight ends, better that groups production?
If I had to guess, I’d say they will. Looking at the line they have five players who excel as run blockers with some deficiencies in the pass game. Kraemer is a mauler, Nelson is a mauler. McGlinchey made his name in the running game and Mustipher is a bulldog.
Fans have been clamoring for a run oriented offense and given the make up of the line, the athleticism of Wimbush, and the stable of backs, it just makes sense for Notre Dame to run, run, and then run some more.