Spring solutions: Offensive Line

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There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.

You name it, the Irish have it. Experience, with every projected starter from the Music City Bowl returning. Elite talent, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley turning down an opportunity to be a first rounder and returning to South Bend.

After watching Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand collect talented recruiting classes over the past four cycles, we’ll get our chance to see what is likely the top offensive line of the Kelly era next season. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the depth chart and what needs to be accomplished this spring.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Nick Martin, Grad Student
C: Matt Hegarty, Grad Student
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*

LT: Alex Bars, Soph.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
or Jimmy Byrne, Soph*
C: Mark Harrell, Sr.*
or Tristen Hoge, Fr.
RG: Colin McGovern, Jr.*
or John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Huter Bivin, Jr.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.

While the depth at tackle is still probably a little bit below optimal, Kelly’s willingness to allow blue-chipper Jerry Tillery start as a defensive lineman instead of on offense gives you an idea as to his comfort level.

With over a dozen scholarship players to look at, let’s take a rapid fire look at the depth chart.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Ronnie Stanley: Learn how to be a dominant player and a position-group leader. While Nick Martin wore the ‘C’ on his jersey last season, it’s going to be Stanley who’ll morph into the leader of the offensive line if things go according to plan.

Kelly has talked openly about his belief that it’s critical for a team to have its best players be its best leaders. We saw the last two seasons when that wasn’t the case.

If Stanley turns himself into a captain candidate–and we heard hints of that happening before the Music City Bowl–then the rest will take care of itself.

(I’m assuming a full offseason in the weight room and another year of work will turn Stanley into one of the premier performers in the country and likely an All-American.)

Nick Martin: After a somewhat trying and disappointing season by Martin, the grad student needs to turn himself into a top-level interior offensive lineman. Whether that’s at center or guard remains to be seen.

Martin had a hand injury that hampered his ability to snap last year, playing most of the year at less than 100 percent. Combine that with the ascent of young talent like Quenton Nelson and Martin may shift inside. Either way, he’ll be a starter in 2015, and another good leader on a roster filled with them.

Matt Hegarty: If you’re looking for hints as to how Kelly and Hiestand plan to go next year, you’d think that Hegarty’s role on the offensive line will lead you in that direction. Then again, maybe not.

Last year, Hegarty played center during spring, serving as a fill-in as Martin recovered from knee surgery. But after committing late to a starting five (or at least their positions), it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly and Hiestand prefer Hegarty over young talent.

It wasn’t all great last season for Hegarty, but he’s a very solid player who will only be better in 2015.

Steve Elmer: He’s a guard.

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from last year, when Elmer’s struggles getting comfortable on the edge required Christian Lombard to move back outside and Elmer to return to the interior spot he played more than capably as a freshman.

Elmer has the size of a tackle and if all things were equal most probably preferred him making it as a bookend. But as we’ve seen recently in the NFL draft (hello, Zack Martin), a good lineman is coveted wherever he plays, inside or out.

Mike McGlinchey: You have to feel optimistic about McGlinchey’s play considering he was thrown into the fire against USC’s All-World Leonard Williams and then took on LSU in his first start. And McGlinchey thrived under the circumstances.

He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s long been one of Kelly’s favorite prospects. Entering his third season in the program and his first as a projected full-time starter, it’s time for McGlinchey to prove his coach right, as Alex Bars will be breathing down his neck.

Alex Bars: In a perfect world, Bars is Stanley’s understudy, watching a technician at the position and taking mental reps before earning his spot in the starting lineup. But football is rarely perfect, so Bars will need to be ready at both tackle spots, sooner than later.

Many raised an eyebrow when Kelly said in December that Bars was among the best young linemen he’s seen in his 25 years. There’s no reason to think that he won’t come gunning for a job, whether it be McGlinchey’s or anybody else on the offensive line.

Quenton Nelson: When Kelly pointed to Nelson working on the interior, it put a bullseye on the guard position that Martin and Hegarty shared last year. Depending on how the coaching staff viewed the production of that duo, Nelson will get a shot to jump the line and earn some playing time.

Big, strong and (presumably) nasty, Nelson is still a very young football player. But after many wondered if he’d even be redshirted in 2014, you should expect the New Jersey native to try to make up for lost time this spring.

Jimmy Bryne: When you talk about promising young offensive linemen, Bryne’s name often gets lost in the shuffle. But while it’s natural to make assumptions about players we don’t know, until we see Bryne given a chance to earn his keep, we have no idea if he’ll be capable of making a move.

That move this spring might just be into the second-string, with Bryne playing some tackle during bowl prep. And if there are health issues with Hunter Bivin, Bryne could see plenty of time with the second unit this spring.

Mark Harrell: We saw during the spring game some of Harrell’s struggles shotgun snapping. The senior hasn’t ascended into the starting line as some expected when he signed, but he’ll likely be practicing for an opportunity to stick around for a fifth year.

It’s hard to say anything negative about Harrell’s play, consider we’ve seen very little of it. But with freshman Tristen Hoge a natural center and participating this spring, Harrell might need to showcase some flexibility if he’s going to earn any playing time.

Tristen Hoge: Welcome to college football, kid. He won’t be starting his career against Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt, but Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will teach Hoge a few things.

Earning time on this offensive line won’t be easy, but Hoge is getting an extra semester in a race for the starting center job in 2016. Bulking up and learning behind Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will be a good learning experience.

Colin McGovern: If you’re looking for a really good football player who is flying under the radar, McGovern is my candidate. While he’s been challenged by some injuries and a depth chart that doesn’t seem to have an opening, McGovern could have some flexibility, playing inside or out.

The time might not come in 2015, but McGovern needs to get into the mix for playing time as the Irish will likely be replacing three starters after this season.

John Montelus: After starting his college career as a very large body, Montelus has worked his way into shape. Now he needs to find the playing field.

We’ll get a status report as to how close Montelus is come March 18. He’s another intriguing piece that Harry Hiestand has collected.

Hunter Bivin: Sitting out some bowl prep for LSU, what to expect from Hunter Bivin is anyone’s guess. Is he a center? A tackle? Is he healthy?

Bivin’s been in the program, so he’s no longer just another blue-chip recruit. But until we know that he’s healthy and what position he’ll be playing, it’s hard to understand how he’ll fit into the plans.

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame at Michigan State: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Notre Dame at Michigan State. Many years, this matchup would warrant anticipatory headlines. In this rendition, two teams coming off historically-disappointing seasons are looking to prove they are on the path back to top-flight competitiveness.

WHAT? As may become a theme this season, this will come down to how the Irish offensive line fares against the Spartans’ defensive front seven.

WHEN? 8:00 p.m. ET. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:12, though if the preceding game runs long, a five-minute contingency should be expected. At that point, though, the game will begin one way or another.

WHERE? Spartans Stadium, East Lansing, Mich. Years ago, a venture to this site is where I first learned a traveler’s rule of thumb: Never make a trip where the roundtrip travel is longer than the time spent at the destination. I have since violated the rule a total of once, when the New York Yankees visited the Detroit Tigers in the 2011 divisional round. The wrong team won. Speaking of baseball and apropos of nothing else aside from being reminded of it this week, Cy Young threw 749 complete games, a full 110 more than the next-most in history, Pud Galvin’s 639.

Fox has the broadcast this week. Aside from that meaning Gus Johnson will be providing the exhilarating play-by-play, not sure what else to share about that fact.

WHY? This will be the last game — unless a bowl situation were to arise — between Notre Dame and Michigan State until 2026. Whoever wins will get to display the vaunted megaphone trophy for nearly a decade without worry. If that doesn’t get everyone’s competitive juices flowing, well, then that is not much of an indicator of anything because it is actually a pretty absurd keepsake.

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

BY HOW MUCH? This line moved as high as Notre Dame by five, never to this eye falling below three, and that is where it settled in as of this Friday evening typing. With a combined points total over/under of 54, the theoretical projected score would be an Irish 28-25 victory.

That might be a bit high-scoring, especially considering the performance of Notre Dame’s defense to date. If Georgia could not surpass 20 points, there is no reason to think the Spartans can.

Notre Dame 23, Michigan State 17. (2-1 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame should punt less, a Georgia ticket arrest & Bob Diaco’s fate
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Claypool and Notre Dame’s history at Spartan Stadium
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Ready for a tough week for the dozen foes, but that could mean some promising upsets
MSU’s man-to-man pass D may allow Notre Dame & Wimbush to rush more; Kelly on resting Adams
Who among Notre Dame’s receivers might emerge?
And In That Corner … The Michigan State Spartans and a recovery from a 3-9 season
Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness
Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update
Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE BOSTON COLLEGE GAME
Notre Dame rushes past Boston College and record books
Notre Dame offense may trend toward run, partly thanks to Wimbush
Things We Learned: Notre Dame lacks an aerial attack and a punt return, has a defensive future
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Canteen out for the season, Javon McKinley probably sitting also; Kelly on blocking strategy

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Georgia ticket broker arrested for overselling Notre Dame vs. Bulldogs tickets
The NFL’s Crisis on Offense … may reflect a collegiate trend
At USC, Sundays and Mondays matter just as much as Saturdays
Remembering Michigan State’s epic “Little Giants” fake field goal against Notre Dame
Joe Thomas on measuring a running attack’s success
Nebraska fired athletic director Shawn Eichorst, putting the future employment of head coach Mike Riley, and by extension his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, in doubt
A long look at Bob Davie’s checkered past as controversy swirls in New Mexico
The Unforgettable, Inspirational CFB Gameday Inside Iowa’s Children’s Hospital
A five-by-five Pac-12 After Dark bingo card for anyone staying up late to watch UCLA at Stanford
10 years after Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man! I’m 40!” rant, the columnist it was aimed at reflects

Friday at 4: Four things you do not see

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For all the enjoyment football brings so many, it is a game predicated on one sense above all others: sight.

Sure, the atmosphere in Spartans Stadium this weekend will include the sounds of yelling fans, the smells of propane grills and the taste of cheap, domestic buds. Even the weather will trigger the feeling of sweat.

The game itself, however, needs only working eyes. There is a reason film is usually watched on mute, after all.

There are some things related to the game not seen, or not seen often, though.

Let’s start with an educational session from the NFL’s Cal Ripken — Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas

Yes, that is the same Thomas as the one drafted in the same year, in the same round, by the same team as former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn has not seen NFL action since getting eight starts for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2012, throwing two touchdowns compared to eight interceptions.

Thomas, meanwhile, now blocks for his second former Irish passer while on his way to a likely 11th consecutive Pro Bowl. Note: This is Thomas’ 11th year in the NFL. Not only has he started all 162 games of his career, he has now played in more than 10,000 consecutive offensive snaps.

That’s, uhhh, a lot.

Thursday morning Thomas met with reporters and offered some insights to how he gauges a successful day at the office. (Fair warning: The following embedded video does include one four-letter word. Thomas’ point is quoted and summarized below, so the video may not be necessary to view.)

“You always hear a lot about 4.0 yards per carry, which is sort of everyone’s standard,” Thomas said. “… If you look at rushing in the NFL, you go alright, we went for 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 60. And then you go, we’re rushing really well, we have a seven-yard average. But really how are you going to get the offensive coordinator to call a run again if he’s getting one and two yards and facing a third-and-seven all the time?”

Well, you’re not.

Thomas prefers “rushing efficiency,” valuing runs of more than four yards, runs gaining first downs and runs finding the end zone. If those make up at least 60 percent of rush attempts, Thomas deems it a success.

“That’s what’s going to allow you to get 20, 25, 30 carries in a game,” he said. “Then you walk out of the game feeling good about getting your 100 yards at the end of the game versus saying you didn’t have four yards a carry, but you were really efficient so you did stay ahead of the sticks, and you were able to keep the offense on the field and be in manageable third downs.”

This space has previously argued the easiest way to learn if a rushing attack is potent or not is to simply note how many running attempts it has. This parallels Thomas’ argument: If the run game is not doing what it needs to do, the coaches will stop calling running plays. The run efficiency percentage is simply a more exact metric, albeit one you cannot see in a glimpse of a box score.

How has Notre Dame fared thus far this season?

Using Thomas’ standards, the Irish had a 61.90 percent rush efficiency in the season opener (42 rushes), a 32.35 percent rating in their one loss (34) and a 66.67 percent tally in last week’s record-setting rushing performance (51). (more…)

Kelly on C.J. Sanders, Kevin Stepherson and punt returns; injury update

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In his last media availability before Notre Dame heads to face Michigan State this weekend (8 p.m. ET on Saturday, Fox), Irish coach Brian Kelly did not discuss his receiver corps at all.

Just kidding.

Of the eight topics Kelly was questioned about, five of them dealt with wideouts in some respect, perhaps spending the most time on C.J. Sanders. The junior has yet to be seen contributing on offense this season.

“It’s not that he’s really done anything from last year to this year wrong,” Kelly said. “He’s actually stronger. I think he’s a better football player. You’re going to see him on the field. … As the season progresses, he’s going to play.”

Kelly cited the blocking provided by fifth-year Arizona State transfer Cam Smith as the biggest impediment between Sanders and an immediate increase in playing time, describing Smith’s blocking as “just physically” better. With sophomore Chase Claypool also seeing time on the boundary, Sanders faces stiffer competition for playing time.

“Do you move him back into the slot?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “We’re pretty comfortable moving guys around at this point at that position because of our need to put bigger-bodied guys in the offense with the tight end at that position.”

In other words, Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long have moved receivers such as Sanders, and even Claypool, out to the boundary because they so often remove the slot receiver from the field in favor of an additional tight end.

Injury update

Speaking of Sanders, Kelly declared him “fine” in his recovery from a sprained ankle. For that matter, sophomore running back Tony Jones will be a “game-day decision” as to his availability due to a sprained ankle suffered against Boston College.

Kevin Stepherson update

There is no indication the sophomore receiver will join Notre Dame’s offense this week. Considering Stepherson did not even travel to face the Eagles, it is quite likely he watches this weekend on a television, as well. Yet, Kelly did speak positively of Stepherson’s return from something of an absence thus far this season.

“He’s had a good month,” Kelly said. “His last month has been pretty good. He’s been pretty consistent working to do the right things in the classroom and has exhibited the things that I’ve been looking for. He’s been working out with [the team] for the last week or so.”

But, to add some emphasis here again, Kelly did not imply Stepherson will play this weekend. In fact, the exact opposite.

“He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s making progress.”

On punt returns and Chris Finke

To complete this week’s second (third? fourth?!) receiver recap, Kelly defended junior receiver Chris Finke’s work as a punt returner this season. Irish opponents have punted 22 times in three games. Finke has attempted to return eight of them. He has netted a total of two yards.

“We’re pleased with him,” Kelly said. “There won’t be a change there.”

Kelly did include a caveat for praising Finke’s return game.

“We’ve been in a number of fourth down situations where we’ve asked for a fair catch and he hasn’t fair caught it,” Kelly said. “We have to be better there. He has to fair catch those balls.”

On the moments when Finke returned a punt to absolutely no avail, Kelly cited missed blocks as the culprit, not Finke’s decision to make a move with the ball.

“One of our gunners has to do better on hold-up,” he said. “We think we’ve had an opportunity for a couple of good returns. … If there’s a change, it will be with one of the gunners.”

Things To Learn: On Notre Dame’s defensive line, offensive line and Wimbush’s road readiness

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It is a curious, frustrating time in the college football season. We think we know everything. We actually know nothing.

Notre Dame beat up on Boston College and Temple, but fell a play short against Georgia. If the Bulldogs are what they appear to be, then the Irish may be a very competitive team this year. If they aren’t, then that one-play-short speaks much louder. This weekend should do wonders in providing that context when Georgia hosts Mississippi State. On a more micro scale …

Who does Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko task with spying Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke?

Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke cruised to a 61-yard touchdown run two weeks ago against Western Michigan. Preventing such a jaunt willb ea high priority for the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

The junior quarterback has already taken 15 carries for 171 yards (sacks adjusted) through two games this season. Notre Dame’s defensive success will not hinge entirely on limiting Lewerke’s ability to break from the pocket, but that will be a crucial part of it.

“He’s more than just a manager of the offense, he can throw it,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “Highly accurate. He has more than just escapability. He’s fast, he can run.”

To limit that running, Elko will possibly assign a linebacker to keeping his eyes on Lewerke at most, if not all, times. There are two obvious candidates for this duty: seniors Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill.

Which one gets the gig more often will play a part in further understanding of Elko’s preferred defensive wrinkle, the rover, manned by Tranquill. To date, Tranquill’s role has been to crash the line on any obvious running play while providing coverage of tight ends otherwise. This has fit his skill set quite well. Rather than worry about the speed of a receiver challenging a safety deep, Tranquill is facing more physical-based assignments. The one thing the captain has never needed to worry about on the football field is his physicality.

With that job description in mind, Morgan may seem the more obvious choice to have an eye on Lewerke, but that may limit Morgan’s naturally tendencies of always finding his way to the ballcarrier. Such is the dilemma presented by a dual-threat quarterback.

Notre Dame’s ability to contain Lewerke will portend how Wake Forest and, to a much lesser extent, North Carolina may fare against the Irish defense. Deacons quarterback John Wolford has rushed for 226 yards on 29 carries (sacks adjusted, as usual) this season, though 108 of those yards came against Boston College, a defense very clearly vulnerable to quarterback rushes. Tar Heels quarterback Chazz Surratt has already notched three rushing touchdowns this season, though that is not the same inherent quandary of a truly mobile quarterback.

Part of the Irish defense’s discipline this weekend will come down to the young defensive line. Can those linemen mind their assignments?

“If you fall asleep in zone option, [Lewerke is] going to pull it and is capable of running out,” Kelly said.

In other words, if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes crashes too hard on a running back headed up the middle, Notre Dame could quickly be exposed to Lewerke racing up the sideline. It seems appropriate here to mention the two freshmen defensive tackles Kelly praised Tuesday, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.

“We trust that they’re going to execute the techniques that we’ve asked them to,” Kelly said. “They’re not jumping out of their fits. There might be times where physically or technically there might be some mistakes, but they’re extremely coachable. … If we ask them to do something, they’re going to do it.”

If those two continue to successfully complement senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Jerry Tillery in the middle, that should offer Hayes the peace of mind to not over pursue a running back dive and instead man the outside lane. If he does not feel the need to make a play because he knows Hinish is capable of holding his own, that should help limit Lewerke’s chances, as well.

How will the Irish offensive line fare against a good, but not great, defensive front seven?
This plays into the introductory concept. Notre Dame’s offensive line protected junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush well against both Temple and Boston College, allowing a total of two sacks. As it pertains to the rushing attack, the offensive line opened hole after wide hole in those two contests. (more…)