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.