Questions Linger For Notre Dame Offensive & Defensive Lines

The good news for the 2018 Fighting Irish is their best units are along the lines. The offensive line has long been a strength for Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams. Not so much on the defensive line, but that unit is deep and seasoned heading into Kelly’s 9th season. It’s been conventional wisdom since the dawn of time that good football teams are built along the lines. For the first time in the Kelly era, his defensive line is on equal footing with it’s offensive counterpart. It’s great news!

That said, those two units aren’t without questions and concerns, and as they hold the key to success in 2018, they deserve a little more scrutiny than, say, the wide receivers. The receivers can take time to blossom. The defensive line cannot. The same can be said of the offensive group. I don’t think either group will be bad, but they need to be excellent.

Will One Of The Defensive Ends Make The Leap?

Notre Dame is blessed with very good numbers on the defensive front four, and compared to recent units, it’s pretty remarkable. They are two deep along the long at every position, and it’s a real two deep, not just names on a paper. How much is Notre Dame losing if Tillery, Bonner, Kareem, Hayes depart, and Myron, Hinish, Okwara, and Ogundeji enter? They lose some inside, but it’s in the margins, and basically nothing at end. Even with the recent loss of Jay Hayes to a transfer, it’s a very good situation.

But, as good as they were in 2017, they didn’t generate much of a pass rush that wasn’t manufactured with the blitz. It was substantially better than it was in 2016, but that terrible unit can’t be the standard. The defensive line generated 16 sacks last season, and the team 24, but only tallied 6 following the 49-14 victory over USC, when the defense stagnated from it’s stellar play to begin the season.

On paper, there should be a lot of optimism regarding the prospects of a high powered rush from the defensive line this year. Pretty much everyone is back, and the three best rush defensive ends from last season, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem are entering their junior seasons. It’s not at all unreasonable to expect at least one, if not two of them to take the proverbial leap and became dangerous game to game. But, like the defense as a whole, after a strong beginning, the play from those three, especially Hayes and Okwara, dropped off noticeably post USC. Between those three players over the final six games, they registered just one sack and five quarterback hurries. Not the kind of trend line you want to see.

As much talent and experience that returns on the 2018 defense, it’s hard to see them meaningfully improving from being the 27th rated defense in S&P+ without more consistent pressure on the quarterback. This is one of the things that makes this season tricky for Notre Dame and Kelly this season. Going from 4-8 to 10-3 is great. This year, 10-3 is the standard. In golf, going from shooting in the 90’s to the low 80’s isn’t that difficult. But going from the low 80’s to shooting in the mid 70’s? Quite a bit harder.

The Offensive Line Is In Flux

It’s easy to look at the names on the depth chart, the recruiting rankings, the production so far, and the recent track record and assume everything is going to work out. The line is littered with talent, and return a bunch of starts, even with the departures of McGlinchey and Nelson. There is a lot to work with. But, there are areas of concern.

The first concern is the driver of the track record of success is getting ready to coach linemen for the Chicago Bears. No matter how you feel about Jeff Quinn and his hire, these guys were all picked by Harry Hiestand and they have been his players the whole way. He’s developed the recent draft picks, and the excellent offensive lines lately. So just right there, it’s cause for some trepidation.

The second, and somewhat related to the first, is there is so much in flux with who is going to play where on the line. There are two spots where we know who is going to play and where, Sam Mustipher at center and Alex Bars at right guard. Beyond that, it’s all up the in air.

  • Tommy Kraemer could play right tackle or left guard
  • Robert Hainsey could play left tackle or right tackle
  • Josh Lugg could play left tackle, right tackle, or left guard
  • Aaron Banks could play left guard or right tackle
  • Liam Eichenberg could play left tackle or right tackle
  • Trevor Ruhland could play left guard or center

It’s not that it’s bad Notre Dame has a bunch of versatile players. It isn’t. It’s that there are so many different combinations and variations they can choose from, there is a lot of opportunity for error somewhere. In football and especially on the line, you always want the whole to be better than the individual parts. In this situation, there is a good chance the parts will be greater than the whole. Which is why the addition of a new line coach is all the more difficult; he doesn’t only have to choose the best players, but he also has to choose the best combination of players. This could have been why Quinn was tapped for the position in the first place. While he hasn’t been coaching a particular position, he has been around the team for three seasons now. He’s at least seen all of these players the last couple of years.

The floor is pretty high for this group. Even if Quinn makes a somewhat poor choice, the talent is immense. But, like with defensive line, the margin for error for the offensive line isn’t very big. If Notre Dame is to be a double digit win team again, the line has to be excellent. And for both units, there are still some questions.

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  2. I’m excited for the “game” tomorrow. I might be most excited to see how/if Avery Davis is used out of the backfield.

    I’ve always been keen on this kid—he’s an athlete, a competitor, and everything indicates he has his head on straight. I really hoped he would compete at QB this year, but it doesn’t look like he’ll see the field there. The fact he’s willing to play other positions to see the field is a big plus, from my perspective.

    I’m also excited to see Liam at left tackle to get some idea if he’s as elite as he was billed. We know we’ve got a solid (at least) front four, so let’s see how he does against it.

    I hope Wimbush is “the guy” at QB. Book does a lot of things well—but Wimbush is excellent on his feet. If he can graduate to competent with his arm we’ll be in business. If not, we might be stuck waiting, with our fingers crossed, to see if Jurkovec becomes what he we hope he becomes. Honestly, there’s just too much QB talent coming through ND to not blame Kelly, at this point, if we can’t find “the guy.” We’ll have three 4-star “dual-threats” and a very talented 3-star on the roster come fall. If Kelly can’t find someone to run his offense, with that kind of talent, it’s time to buy the best beer on tap and watch every Rocket highlight video available on YouTube.

    Tomorrow won’t tell us much (does a sack mean our O-line is weak or our D-line is strong? Was that a bad pass or a great play by our safety?). But it can give us some insight into what we’ll be seeing in September.

    And to that, I’ll say this: Having a game against Michigan in week 1, that seems like it will make or break the whole season, has me feeling like a kid again. Will our depth and experience be able to contain singular talents like Gary and Patterson? Personally, I hope the NCAA denies Patterson’s waiver—but I think we’re good either way.

  3. Actually I preferred Richard Kiel over Andre. It’s all about ” the fight in the dog” Eichenberg vs. Gary should be something to see. Maybe have to have tag team.

  4. In other news, while looking at the mock drafts, I peaked at Walter’s 2019 mock draft.

    Michigan has two of the top 7, QB Shea Patterson #1 and the great Rashan Gary at #7. Quinn and Long will be busy getting Liam Eichenberg ready for the challenge of combatting Gary. One would surmise that a TE will help chip Gary.

    9/1 will be interesting. Little doubt the Irish will be focused all sumer with the challenge of facing the Blue.

    1. The nice thing about this series which is always early in the year, is that both teams have to divert a lot of practice time for it…for each other’s expected team. Often, the loser of this game has been out of the NC picture…though now we have the playoffs, which changes things a bit. Ohio State lost an opener against VT and still made the playoffs. So could Michigan or even ND…but your fate is never completely in your own hands again with a loss going four a four team playoff spot.
      An interesting sidenote to this series: Notre Dame never seems to win in the press in this game. When we lose, the press always says Notre Dame isn’t that good this year. But when we win, do they say we’re good? No, they say Michigan isn’t that good this year! I suppose some at Michigan might feel the same.

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. Bruce, coeval with freedom of the press is my freedom to ignore it.

        I care not a whit, and don’t give a feather or a fig about:
        preseason rankings
        analyses of any kind.

        TV? Ever since Disney’s mouse bought ESPN they have slutted for ratings, not clarity or insight.

        One morning, without premeditation, I was watching one of the ESPN shows and they did ten minutes on:
        “Were you Okay with Li’l Wayne’s tweet during the Heat game last night?” Say what?

        I feel that a good, even middlin’ barber could solve the tonsorial problems of both Li’l Wayne and Kim Jong Un.

        For your lemmings who watch ESPN, when was the last time you saw a really thorough, incisive, piercing study
        of the risks and benefits of a 3-4 versus 4-3 defense. That is not a static state exercise as the balances shift as
        offenses evolve.

        Sports media? print, radio, blogosphere? As Goldwyn said, include me out.

        For now, Just win baby.

      2. Actually, the problem goes back to ABC’s reign of terror, when the Rose Bowl was tied off at both ends. If Michigan lost to ND in those years, the best it could hope for was going to the Rose Bowl with one loss. But if the PAC 8 did not have a NC hopeful that year, and that was usually the case, Michigan (or whatever Big Ten Champ) could not go where there was one (Orange, Cotton, or Sugar…and later Fiesta). So unless USC was undefeated going into the Rose Bowl, any Big Ten champ with a loss was locked out of the NC. Things are better now with a 4 Team Playoff, but what we really need is an 8 Team Playoff…5 major conf. Champs each get automatic bids…and there are three at-large bids to clean up the most obvious omissions.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  5. Of geese, golden eggs and production capacity.

    The Notre Dame OL may be in a legacy position.

    The four 2018 signees came to campus TOGETHER to revisit this past weekend. That is an extraordinary bond for kids who won’t even matriculate until June.

    Eichenberg keeps talking about Quenton Nelson’s tape and how much time he spends watching it.

    There is a continuity now, notwithstanding Heistand’s departure. Accountability is good, in a family as a Christian or on an athletic team.

    These kids are now accountable to their OL teammates, the OL who preceded them, and the rest of their teammates.
    That is very solid, and immune from the slings and arrows of internet lunacy and fan dysfunction.

  6. Meanwhile, Willie Taggart impressed the FSU faithful at the Seminoles Spring Game with a new, up-tempo offense that ran 85 plays in the first half, and 125 for the game (2nd half used a running clock).
    He describes it as “lethal simplicity”.

    I remember Kelly promising something similar in his first ND speech.
    How many years ago was that now?



  7. Friday, April 20, John Olmstead, 6’6″ 290 announces his commitment. Most think Notre Dame will
    get Olmstead.

    This weekend, Quinn Carroll, 6’6″ 295 will be back at Notre Dame for another visit. He and Olmstead know each other and have chatted about playing together.

    Were Notre Dame to get both these two stud tackles it would be a nice start to ’19 OL recruiting.

      1. Well, Southside, they are highly rated. But once, in a sleazy bar in Connecticut I had a couple of drinks with Andre the
        Giant not far from McMahon’s then WWF headquarters.

        He is, by FAR, the largest mammal I have ever seen. And a very nice guy.

    1. Greg , I remember Joe Pyne ! Great talk show host–who didn’t take s**t. Morton Downey Jr. didn’t take s**t either. Pyne took down his opponent in a subdue approach –while Downey got his ratings as a loud , abrasive host.

  8. DREW PYNE is a great pickup for the IRISH! 4STAR QB for the class of 2020. NOW if we can get 1,2, or hell all 3 of the D-LINEMAN who visited this weekend the 19 class will b outstanding! O-LINE MUST BE on top of their game for the opener against a tough MICH. Defense. Lets hope WIMBUSH can make a lot of IMPROVEMENTS between now and then. Cant make it out this year for BLUE N GOLD GAME (WEDDING) but looking forward to seeing exactly how WIMBUSH has progressed!! I HOPE!

  9. Michael the Archangel,
    It’s not that simple, unfortunately. If BW wins the starting job, he has to be the right choice from the beginning. If we are finding out in October that he was a blunder, or whoever starts in September is a blunder, the season is OVER. Whoever the coaches pick to go with has to be right from the start. We won’t get a 1977 – like chance to jump from #5 to #1 with an early season loss because we played the wrong guy for the first six games! Number 5 DOESN’T make the playoffs. Notre Dame makes the playoffs at 12-0. At 11-1, with an early season home loss and a bumbling “O” that gets a QB change in game 6 – probably not. 11-1 with a close ROAD loss probably gets in…but that would require some other people to lose games they should have won.

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Yeah, that’s my concern exactly. ND needs to have the system in place from day one. It’s not just the QB that’s affected by having the wrong guy in the job. It can affect the entire offense, from the types of plays you need to practice to the team chemistry.

      And this is BK’s ninth season coming up. He doesn’t have the luxury of testing things out. If ND falters coming out of the gate his seat is going to be very uncomfortable.

      1. Damian, that’s how I see it. IMO this is BK’s best shot at a national title…better than 2012 because we have offense as well as a really deep and experienced defense. But the QB choice has to be right and the “O” line needs to have timing right out of the gate.
        Yoon gives us an edge in overtime and close games, and the punting is there when needed. If we blow this, we are looking at nastier schedules for the rest of his contract…I’d like to see him get a NC…we look primed for it.

        BGC ’77 ’82

    2. BGC , MTA , Damian , I think we all agree Wimbush will start versus Michigan. This game is a must win Kelly/Irish as it is for Harbough/Michigan. Both teams have QB issues. I would give edge to Irish at QB WITH Wimbush. If his passing stats are less than 60%– and Irish win he will start game 2. So , I gotta go with MTA that it will take a few games to find out if Wimbush is the QB . We all are so focused in his passing stats –but if Irish keep winning –he’s not gonna be yanked. If Wimbush comes out with a terrible performance versus Michigan — and loss versus Michigan , than something has to be done. Going to back up QB this early in season means were out of QB’s. Since Avery has been moved to another position should Jurkovic remain on roster and not be red shirted ?

      1. Whoever starts against Michigan better play well enough that we are not all wondering at what point he will be replaced, either during the game, or during the year.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  10. It is conceivable that Jeff Quinn is maintaining the “pipeline” for the Notre Dame Offensive Line.

    For the ’19 class, the Irish either lead or have a puncher’s chance for John Olmstead, Quinn Carroll, Zeke Correll, all of whom rank higher than the ’18 class, and Andrew Kristofic, high school teammate of Phil Jurkovec.

    Even looking forward to the ’19 regular season, there will be one odd man out of Josh Lugg, Trevor Ruland and Aaron Banks, each of whom appears to have the “right stuff” to start, but only two leave with Mustipher and Bars.

    On the right side, Kraemer and Hainsey will be side by side for ’18, 19 and ’20.

    Harry did not leave a bare cupboard. Quinn is keeping it stocked.

  11. It’ll be interesting to see how things shape up next season. I’m less concerned about the defense with Lea staying on. If they had to hire a new DC with a different system, that would have been a problem. But I expect Lea will continue what Elko started, and the defense last year was a clear improvement. The O-line is a bit more of a question mark I think. They’ll be new faces and a new coach so we’ll see what happens with that. QB is a big question mark, and a position I’ve been highly critical of BK for–with good reason I think. I won’t beat a dead horse there, except to say how many promising QBs have to go bust at ND before the coaching staff realizes may they’re missing something. I no longer have confidence that they can develop any QB if no changes are made in how they are coached. One QB goes bust, ok, maybe it’s the player. But QB after QB starts off with a lot of promise then they hit some adversity and collapse under the pressure.

    The Blue-Gold game will be interesting, but like all spring games I’d be cautious about how much I’d read into it. It’ll be interesting to see where Wimbush is at this point, and if his passing is any better.

    I still think Wimbush can contribute. I know he wants to be a QB, but maybe that’s not the right position for him. What I don’t want to see is him warming a bench most of the season then transferring to another school. That would be a waste. The kid is amazing on his feet with the ball in his hands. If the coaches were able to convince him to contribute in other ways, I’d be impressed. And maybe that would be his ticket to the NFL, not as a QB (which he doesn’t have the skill set for IMHO), but as a RB or WR even.

    1. Damian,
      I appreciate your balanced approach re: all things ND and understand your concern about Wimbush, but I’m going to give him several games before I abandon all hope that he can be the QB we all believed he could be. And by several games, yes, that means beyond the opening game versus maybe ND’s most imposing D, and with two solid stalwarts gone from our OL and a new go-to-WR in Boykin.
      Your post about reconsidering BWs ‘best position” might better be taken up in October, not April.

      1. I do think Wimbush will get his chance again–though he’ll probably have a shorter leash.

        My only concern is once the season starts, will it be too late for Wimbush to consider other positions without a lot of practice time?

        But to be honest, it’s all wishful thinking. I’d be shocked if things don’t go well that you see Wimbush playing RB in November. My guess is one of two things will happen. Wimbush will get it together and be the QB for the season. Or he doesn’t, gets pulled in favor of the next QB in line and he ends up transferring next year, like EG, like Zaire. Those are the two likeliest scenarios in my mind. It’s just a shame in Wimbush’s case because he has a gift for running with the ball in his hands.

        And that’s what’s a shame. I see a guy that up to now is a barely average QB because he can’t throw the ball at least 60%. But I also see a guy that could be an elite RB. Put the ball in his hands and he will get you yardage–and that in turn opens up the passing game. We just need someone that’s a more accurate passer. Now if he starts making more accurate passes, this would be a moot point, but up to now BK and co. have not shown that ability to coach a QB up. It’s been one QB bust after another.

  12. So now the forecast is 55 and only 10% chance of rain. That will probably hold…it’s about normal for this time of year…I always preferred Spring games in May. I have an old paper program for one that was on my birthday. I remember once telling a physics class of mine that there is no where in the world I’d rather be – nowhere- on a Fall afternoon than Notre Dame Stadium. Not the Great Wall or the Taj Mahal, not Buckingham Palace or Notre Dame Cathedral. That’s true once in the spring as well.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  13. Was in London near Victoria Station, heard cat calls, looked to see Scots wearing kilts, tennies, on their way to WC in France. Traveling, the best education in the world.

      1. David, when you were outside yer the one who said” don’t know where we’ve been laddie but see we won a blue ribbon

  14. Well Gentlemen, It looks like there may be some rain Saturday in South Bend. Not for sure though…it’s still a week away.
    I’m going with my brother regardless of the weather, of course.
    After this, the dark, boring hell of golf, professional baseball, and tennis descends upon us all until August.

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Copa del mundial the greatest event in the World

      Saw it live in ’82-Azurra and Paolo Rossi

      ’86 also in Estadion Azteca-Diego Armando Maradona, three games, England Belgium and final over Deutschland.

      He was magnificent,though Messi is even more transcendent.

  15. Looks like its set
    Eichenberg LT
    Bars LG
    Mustipher C
    Kraemer RG
    Hainsey RT

    Lugg, Ruhland, subs and swings.
    Aaron Banks may be one year away

    If they can survive Rashan Gary on 9/1 they may have a very bright future. May.

  16. Ron, just heard you were in auto accident last night in SoCal last night. We’re praying for your speedy recovery, good buddy.

  17. I agree BGC. Hard work , training under Balis come first. Fresh legs and depth of O and D lines–guys in trenches will get Irish to to the promised land come November !

  18. How much these guys individually put into Balis’s program will help determine who plays where and how much they appear in the rotation. Assuming that most of them do what Balis asks them to do, we may have fresh legs in our lines all game long. As Greg notes in the article, we could be deeper overall than ever before in the Kelly era…”Holtz-like”, really, and that may finally reap us what we want in November. . .BUT THEY HAVE TO PAY THE PRICE IN TRAINING AND CONDITIONING BETWEEN NOW AND AUGUST. As for Quinn as a coach – well that really is the wildcard in the deck, isn’t it? Hopefully, in December, we’ll be looking back on that choice by Kelly and raving about it!…But who knows in April?

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Jeff Quinn had success before coaching offensive lines for Kelly. I think NDHATENATION tends to criticize every move that Kelly makes, but this was a sound one.

      In this vale of tears, little is “certain” and wheels can fall off any of us, at home, and at work.

      But the Quinn choice was solid, albeit unspectacular.

      If you doubt the ignorance and reflexive undercutting by FAKENotreDAMESELFLOATHINGNATION of:
      Notre Dame Football
      TRUE Notre Dame fans
      Notre Dame football players
      the coaching staff

      the look at their childish skepticism, and the bases thereon, of the Hiestand hire.

      HATERS gonna hate
      Self Loathers gonna selfloath

      But by normal standards of reasonability, the Quinn hire was solid.

    2. Could not agree more with you more BGC long way between now and Sept. Blue AND Gold Game always gives insight on who is ahead of who. No sense in Naming new starters with so much time till KICKOFF!! That makes the kids continue to work and get stronger for the next 4 months. I think QUINN will b fine, he has plenty of experience coaching O-LINE and was right at HH side the last 3 years!

  19. Blocking and tackling is what it’s all about. Expect a few miscues in the first few games. Then these units will become smooth running machines, trampling, sacking the opposition.

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