Stepping up… The offensive line

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We’re starting a feature here that should get everybody ready for Spring Practice. “Stepping Up” (not to be confused with the Channing Tatum/Jenna Dewan tour-de-force dance movie) looks at the holes on the depth chart and who is likely to fill them. I hope everybody enjoys…

If one position’s inconsistency defined the Charlie Weis era, it was the offensive line. While the defense was the unit that ultimately led to Weis’ ouster after five seasons, the offensive line’s volatility and inconsistency — sometimes expected, sometimes mind-boggling — mirrored the struggles of Charlie Weis as a coach and the Irish during his tenure.

While Weis’ 3-9 2007 team is a reflection on the recruiting failures of Tyrone Willingham, the staggering inefficiency of the offensive line also showed how difficult Weis’ pro-style scheme was to pick up for a group of lineman thrown into action after last playing significant minutes at the high school level. 2008’s up-and-down season along the offensive line resulted in the departure of offensive line coach John Latina, and Frank Verducci was brought in to get better results out of a finally veteran group.

While last season’s offensive line saw vast improvements, and Verducci did a impressive job, there was rarely a time where the offensive line dominated an opponent. Whether it was inopportune penalties, inconsistent run-blocking, or ill-timed sacks, it never felt like the offensive line became the veteran force that the Irish needed.

Entering the Brian Kelly era, let’s take a look at who the offensive line loses, who’s returning, and the key lineman that need to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

With the departure of Paul Duncan, Eric Olsen, and Sam Young, the Irish arguably lose the three most important starters along the offensive line. While Duncan was hardly considered an elite left tackle, he did a service able job covering Jimmy Clausen’s blindside. As an offensive captain, Olsen supplied leadership and spearheaded the line, successfully shifting to center to open up playing time for sophomore Trevor Robinson. And while Sam Young may never have become the Outland candidate that many thought the Irish signed when he committed to the Irish from St. Thomas Aquinas, he ended up starting every game of his collegiate career, a pretty miraculous feat in this era of college football.

RETURNING STARTERS:

Chris Stewart returns at guard for the Irish as a fifth year player, where he’s expect to thrive in his final year of eligibility. Stewart’s redshirt should pay dividends, and I expect him to be a force on the interior of the Irish line. Trevor Robinson also returns to the starting lineup, though he might not be lining up on the interior of the offensive line if the Irish can’t find proper tackles to fill the open voids. Robinson battled some injuries last season, but played impressive football for a sophomore and hopefully will take the leap from good to great during his third season. Dan Wenger also comes back for his fifth year, likely returning to center and anchoring the inside of the offensive line. Wenger was the odd-man-out after Olsen shifted to center, but was a valuable reserve that picked up the slack when Robinson was hobbled.

STEPPING UP:

The battle for the two tackle positions is the key to next season’s offensive front. Replacing three starters puts the Irish in a none too envious position of having to replace the majority of minutes along the front line. Our friends over at Blue-Gray Sky point to an ominous statistic, comparing the 43 percent of returning playing time to the 42 percent that returned to the dreadful 2007 offensive line. 

Nobody expects the offensive to nose-dive like it did in 2007, and Brian Kelly’s spread attack doesn’t put nearly the same pressure on lineman that Weis’ offense did. But for the Irish to be an elite offense again, they’ll need some of the following guys to step up and win a job.

Matt Romine, Left Tackle: Romine was a highly-touted recruit, and long expected to challenge for a starting tackle position. Yet injuries, bad luck, and the depth chart have combined to get in the way of Romine playing a significant part of the offense. I expect the coaching change to benefit Romine greatly, as a fresh start and a new scheme will finally put Romine in a position to succeed.

Taylor Dever, Right Tackle: Dever found himself stuck behind Sam Young, which relegated him to only special teams duty the last two seasons. Yet all reports say Dever has the size and athleticism to play on the edge of the offensive front, where he’ll likely be given the first opportunity to win a job.

Dark Horses: Don’t count out guys like Andrew Nuss, who don’t necessarily have an open job to compete for, but will be given every chance to win a starting position. I also expect to hear from athletic tackle Lane Clelland, who profiles nicely into this offense. It’ll be interesting to see how freshman Chris Watt acquits himself this spring, fresh off a redshirt year where he reportedly impressed the former coaching staff. If Dan Wenger doesn’t get it done at center, both Braxton Cave and Mike Golic Jr. will look to challenge at the position.  

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.