Entering spring practice, Notre Dame’s offensive line was viewed as a largely-known commodity, and a trusted commodity, at that. Exiting spring practice, that still holds mostly true, but now there is cause for some skepticism.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Returning four 12-game starters from a year ago is a good place to start when discussing a five-man unit. Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson provide a strong tandem on the quarterback’s blind side. Moving one step inward, another year of growth should only benefit senior center Sam Mustipher.
Senior Alex Bars started at right tackle all of 2016, but a move in to right guard seemed inevitable entering the spring so as to open up space for either sophomore Tommy Kraemer or sophomore Liam Eichenberg on the end. That was the biggest question: If Bars did indeed move inside to right guard, which sophomore would step forward?
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The day before spring practice commenced, Kelly indicated senior Jimmy Byrne and junior Tristen Hoge could also be in the mix on the right side of the line. With both presenting as guards, Kelly’s inclusion of those two names left the door open for Bars to remain at right tackle if neither Kraemer nor Eichenberg proved up to the task.
Naturally, the tutelage of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would be counted on to soothe any concerns along the offensive line. His track record alone merits such faith.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
McGlinchey, Nelson and Mustipher sealed their starting positions. Even if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes got the better of McGlinchey on a handful of snaps in the Blue-Gold Game, the graduate student has first-round NFL talent, and that cannot be said of any other Irish option at tackle in 2017.
Notice the specification in that previous sentence: “at tackle.” It is necessary to include it because Nelson also looks like a potential first-round draft pick. That left-side tandem remains entrenched in their starting positions following spring’s 15 practices.
The same goes for Mustipher. Hoge could—and someday may—play at center, but Mustipher will start there in 2017 until he offers ample reason to make a change. Skip your hurricane commentary here. If that day’s chagrin wasn’t reason enough to make a switch, then that alone should tell you how stable Mustipher is in the position.
But what about that right side? Halfway through spring practice, Kelly said he was still not sure.
“I think it’s firmly established at the right guard position,” Kelly said. “Alex Bars is going to be the right guard. I don’t see that there’s any real change there. He was a starter for us last year.
“It’s the right tackle position that continues to be a competitive situation with Kraemer and Eichenberg still working and splitting reps there. Each one of them is a little different. Kraemer at times a little bit more physical. Liam a little bit longer, maybe. Longer translates itself into pass [protection]. Both of them still are on that learning curve, but both of them are really good players.”
That endorsement, combined with Kraemer’s seeming edge in the intrasquad scrimmage, would lead one to think Kraemer will complete the starting quintet. Nonetheless, he did struggle in the spring game with the likes of senior end Jay Hayes (two sacks) and sophomore Ade Ogundeji (one). Could the Irish pass rush just be that good? It is feasible, but if it is, that threat traces to Daelin Hayes, not Jay Hayes and Ogundeji.
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Kraemer left the door open for Eichenberg to claim the starting spot. Heistand could also make the decision to keep Bars at right tackle and initiate a search for a right guard. Frankly, that could be Kraemer in 2017, though that is unlikely if planning for the future as is necessary due to the nature of college football.
Whatever the alignment, offensive coordinator Chip Long will rely on the offensive line to set a tone, both in and out of games, on and off the field.
“The way those guys go about each and every day, the pride that they take in their overall ability is tremendous,” Long said. “… That’s where our offense starts. We want to be physical, and it starts with our run-play action. To be able to do that when we want to makes it a lot easier.”
Fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin will, on his own, provide much of the second-unit depth. Throughout spring, Kelly praised Bivin for putting the team first and expressed some peace of mind knowing Bivin could fill in at most of the offensive line spots on a moment’s notice. If a long-term substitute was needed, a different solution might be found, but for spot duty throughout the season, Bivin could become something of a fixture.
In addition to Bivin, early enrollee freshman Robert Hainsey caught Kelly’s eye this spring and could serve to fill in if needed.
“Robert Hainsey’s had a really good spring,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that may find himself competing a little bit, as well. He’s really been the surprise for us among all the guys in his maturity, his ability to really pick up what we’re doing as well as from a fundamental, technique standpoint, he’s been really good.”
That leaves junior Trevor Ruhland, sophomore Parker Boudreaux and early enrollee freshman Aaron Banks as further depth up front. Incoming freshmen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons will join those ranks this summer.
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