A long held belief of mine over the years is you’re only as good as your best guys. The margins matter, of course, and if left unattended they can cost a team a game or two. But, if you’ve got a team that wants to be better than good, to be among the elite, they are going to need players and/or units that are of that caliber.
There has been a lot of discussion about the depth of Notre Dame’s defensive line and the experience if the offensive line. When ranking position groups, they’ll undoubtedly be at least amongst the top four, if not the top two. Both have experience and star power, plus good numbers. But, how good are they going to be? And will they finally be good at the same time?
Notre Dame has had stellar offensive lines in the recent past: 2015 and 2017 were phenomenal units with the 2017 line being voted as the top quintet in the nation. The defensive line has gone from a past liability to a recent strength, but not THE strength, and will garner national preseason recognition heading into the 2019 year. Can the two units carry their squads to gridiron glory? The opportunity is there.
We know Chip Long wants to run the ball and no Notre Dame team has been really good on offense without a strong running game (with the exception of the 2009 team, but I digress). They return four starters on the line with the 5th starter, redshirt freshman center Jarrett Patterson, earning rave reviews throughout spring practice. High four star talent abounds, even in backup roles, and there is frankly no excuse for this unit not to be at least very good next season.
But, how good is good? Last year, they were quite bad by advanced stats standards, ranked in the 100’s in overall line yards and 88th in standard downs line yards. Not great. Obviously, it was a bit of a transition year after losing Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the draft and line coach Harry Hiestand to the Bears. They did have some strong performances though, destroying Stanford and Florida State on the ground, so there is reason to think there is a gear in there for this line to reach.
One thing Ian Book has shown is that he needs time in the pocket to be effective, and without a proven running back on the roster, they are going to need some holes. This isn’t exactly a “find your own holes” type of group. Good on the line likely won’t be good enough for what this team is hoping to accomplish given those two facts.
Do they have any All-Americans? There are three who could make a run in left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Aaron Banks (though his foot injury casts some doubt on his early season availability), and right tackle Robert Hainsey. They’ll need at least two of them to be sniffing All-American teams and one who hopefully makes at least the second team.
Is Tommy Kraemer’s transformation real? Let’s hope it is because that eliminates one of the weaknesses on the line from last season. Patterson is the wild card, but so far so good on the news front. But, the quality of this line will be determined by the veterans.
A pretty wonderful situation for the defensive line here because they have the coveted high ceiling and high floor situation. For example, if everyone projected to play along the line plays exactly how they did last season, that’s pretty darn good. The 2019 team will need more though, and if you dare to dream, they could be downright special.
They really need some things to go right along the interior to reach their potential. Myron Tagovailoa Amosa needs to stay on the field. Kurt Hinish must take a leap. Same for Jayson Ademilola. Jacob Lacy has to live up to his potential right now instead of years down the line. These aren’t fanciful wishes, they could realistically happen, but they do need to happen and there is an unknown element at play.
The biggest wildcards in all of this are Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Daelin Hayes. We know they’ll be good and at times great. But, how good are we talking about? Are we talking good like Okwara is a fringe first round prospect, Kareem is a third round guy, and Hayes hopes to be picked in the later rounds?
Or will they be good like Okwara and Kareem make every All-American team, Okwara is a sure fire top 10 pick and Kareem sneaks into the first? Because that is in play, in fact very much so. Okwara had a number of missed opportunities last season, Kareem played hurt for most of hit, and Hayes seemed always a step away. If that trio plays at an elite level, it raises the level of the entire team. Suddenly, the linebackers are asked to do less, the safeties are able to roam, and the corner replacing Julian Love has less to do. A truly elite defensive line masks a lot of things and it rarely has off games. It’s a group that comes and comes, pretty much the nightmare of every offense that has ever played.
We can talk about nickels, and Buck linebackers, and third receivers, and third running backs all day. But if the offensive and defensive lines are lights out dominant, then the 2019 team has a ceiling as high as any in college football. The question remains though, how good is their best?