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.

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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.

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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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45 comments

  1. Hunter 1 year ago

    Last years effort against USC was unbelievable.

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  2. SMOKEY ROB 1 year ago

    NOW THAT PATTERSON WILL PLAY THIS GAME GOT ALOT TOUGHER! MICHIGAN HAS A GREAT D LINE, HOW THE IRISH HANDLE THEM IS THE KEY. OUR D WILL BE STRONG, BUT PATTERSON CAN IMPROVISE. GREAT TEST RIGHT AWAY!????

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  3. Keith 1 year ago

    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.

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  4. Greg Kelly 1 year ago

    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.

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  5. duranko 1 year ago

    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.

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 1 year ago

      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

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      1. duranko 1 year ago

        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.

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      2. Bruce Gregory Curme 1 year ago

        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

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  6. duranko 1 year ago

    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.

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  7. Irish '94 1 year ago

    Willie Taggart is 47-50 as a coach.

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