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.

 

 

 

 

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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