Just about everybody expects Harry Hiestand’s offensive line to be a dominant unit. But after months of preseason hype, they now need to prove they can do it.
On paper, the Irish look to have their strongest and deepest offensive line since Lou Holtz stacked the deck. With a first-round left tackle in Ronnie Stanley, one of the country’s best centers in captain Nick Martin, the mix of experience and elite recruiting should help power the Irish offense to new heights, even with a first-year starter at quarterback.
Before we turn our attention to Texas, let’s take a last look at what we can expect from the offensive line.
Position Coach: Harry Hiestand
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
C: Nick Martin, GS
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*
LT: Hunter Bivin, Jr.*
LG: Alex Bars, Soph*
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.*
RG: John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Mark Harrell, Sr.*
Colin McGovern, Jr.*
Jimmy Byrne, Soph.*
Tristen Hoge, Fr.
Trevor Ruhland, Fr.
*Denotes additional year of eligibility available.
Ronnie Stanley & Nick Martin. Stanley has a chance to be Notre Dame’s first top ten pick in over 20 years. So while some are wondering if the captain snub is still stinging, there are bigger prizes out there for Notre Dame’s left tackle. Stanley needs to dominate from Day One, soon to find out that your draft stock looks much better when you come from off the radar than when you start a season with a bullseye on your back.
As for Martin, we’re still waiting to see what he looks like completely healthy. And if Martin is indeed beyond the knee and thumb issues that plagued him last season, he can anchor the point of attack, making the interior of the offensive line a great asset for the Irish.
NEED A BIG SEASON
Steve Elmer & Mike McGlinchey. There hasn’t been a better looking right side of the Irish offensive line in a long, long time. Both Elmer and McGlinchey are prototype NFL players, each possessing sky high upsides and the ability to both maul and out-athletic defensive linemen.
Now they’ve got to do it. Both have a tendency to get their bodies out of position, with Elmer taking some ugly snaps last year and McGlinchey learning on the fly what the right tackle position is all about. But after a few seasons of the Irish running most of their ground game behind Zack Martin and Chris Watt, if Elmer and McGlinchey can hold their own, balance will return (and maybe even shift) with a strong right side.
THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…
Can this group dominate in the ground game? We saw a nice performance against the SEC’s best statistical defense in the bowl game. But too often over the years has Notre Dame’s rushing attack been plain pedestrian. Blame some of that on Brian Kelly. But blame some of it on an offensive line too comfortable kicking back into their pass blocking stances.
There’s no room for a slow start, with things only kicking into gear in November. Nor the schizophrenic performances, where the ground game will be just shut down some Saturdays. This unit has known its positions and depth chart since spring. Now they need to start September fast and go out and dictate terms.
Can they deal with blitz pressure and pick up the slack for Malik Zaire? Notre Dame’s offensive line took a big step backwards in pass protection last year, with the number of sacks allowed ballooning after Everett Golson returned and Tommy Rees graduated. That’s not because Rees is a better scrambler than Golson (obviously), but rather because Rees helped get the line into the right calls when pressure was set to come.
Zaire is seeing things for the first time in 2015, and while he’s a better runner and scrambler than Golson, he’s not going to be able to run through blown blitz assignments, nor make the right call every time, especially when he’s seeing things for the first time. So if opponents stack the box and try to confuse a young quarterback (not a bad strategy), it’s up to a veteran offensive line to ID the situation, make sure they’re on the same page with Zaire, and get the offense in a position to succeed.
If opponents bring pressure and this line can pick it up, the passing game is primed to make some very big plays down field. But they’ve got to be on the same page with the quarterback.
Who is the next tackle in? Notre Dame’s depth on the interior of the offensive line looks stout. But I’m less bullish on the tackles behind Stanley and McGlinchey. While he’ll likely be listed as a co-starter with Quenton Nelson at left guard when the official depth chart is released next Tuesday, Alex Bars is probably the next man in at both tackle spots and potentially both guard spots as well.
Getting improvement out of Hunter Bivin and Mark Harrell this fall camp was critical, but in reality, that depth chart you see up top? Throw it out. Hiestand needs to develop someone else capable of playing on the edge, comfortable enough to block in space and take on edge rushers. Who that’ll be after Bars remains to be seen.
THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS
How will Quenton Nelson do? The Irish’s first-year starter is sandwiched between elite players, but he’s playing a very important guard position on this offensive line. Your offensive line is only as good as your weakest link, so it’s up to Nelson to prove it won’t be him. (It certainly won’t be him from a strength perspective.)
Does it matter that Zaire’s a lefty and his blind side is protected by McGlinchey, not Stanley? I’m not sure that it does, nor am I sure that it’s necessary for Stanley and McGlinchey to switch sides so the more traditional pass protector is watching Zaire’s back.
But, if you were to ask me to guess a potential shift, this is the one I’m leaning towards, especially since Stanley started his career at right tackle and McGlinchey is still learning how to use that gigantic body of his for good not evil (in OL terms, not superhero terms).
Will the aggressive attitude continue? In the Music City Bowl, this offensive line looked like a transformed unit, finally playing like the aggressor. Can that continue, especially with Zaire the new face of the offense?
Too often this offense got soft in critical situations—short yardage, red zone, punch-it-in-and-go-for-it opportunities. That’s not Zaire’s M.O. It’s also not what we expect from this starting five. It’s still too early to figure out who the dominant defenses are that Notre Dame will face. But we’ll get a nice litmus test against Charlie Strong’s Texas D next weekend.