Last looks: Offensive line

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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.

 

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.*

Additional Depth:

Colin McGovern, Jr.*
Jimmy Byrne, Soph.*
Tristen Hoge, Fr.
Trevor Ruhland, Fr.

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 

 

LEADING MEN

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.

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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