Notre Dame’s offensive line was clearly going to be a strength entering the season. Before a single snap, two expected All-Americans were leading the way. Sure enough, senior left guard Quenton Nelson ended up a unanimous All-American while fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey secured consensus honors.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only question about the offensive line entering the season was who would take over at right tackle with senior Alex Bars moving inward to right guard. Counting Bars, the line returned four starters.
Presumably, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were the two involved in the right tackle competition. Through spring practice, Kraemer appeared to have an edge large enough to be considered the starter but not so large as to eradicate any further discussion in preseason practice.
Neither inspired an excess of confidence, such that offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would even acknowledge the possibility of Bars still being the best right tackle option on the roster. Hiestand was not considering moving Bars, though. The gap between Bars and anyone else at right guard was much greater than the discrepancy between Bars and Kramer (or Eichenberg).
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Freshman Robert Hainsey forced his way into the right tackle competition at some point before the season. He did so to such an extent, Eichenberg was relegated to the nominal duty of backing up McGlinchey. How much work does that job not warrant? Eichenberg saw action in only five games, the streak of Irish routs running from the trip to Boston College through the thrashing of USC.
Kraemer and Hainsey shared the position all season, the latter showing adeptness in pass protection while the Kraemer’s strength came in the running game, although the two usually swapped playing time by the series, not by the situation.
The other 80 percent of the line held to summer’s expectations. Senior center Sam Mustipher’s season should be noted. While Nelson and McGlinchey earned the headlines and awards — and deservedly so — Mustipher quietly played nearly as well.
The offensive line’s dominance this season best shows itself in the running statistics. When looking at sacks allowed, Notre Dame endured only three fewer than last year (25 compared to 28), somewhat a cost of trotting out a quarterback himself so inclined to run the ball.
2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.
It is readily and widely assumed Nelson will head to the NFL while both Mustipher and Bars will return for their final seasons of eligibility. All three would be the logical decisions.
If that all proves true, the Irish essentially return four “starters.” Both Kraemer and Hainsey saw enough action this season to be considered starters for the intent of this and nearly any offseason conversation.
Before deciding on the fifth starter, Hiestand will need to decide what position that newcomer will slot into. One of Kraemer or Hainsey could move to left tackle or left guard. (Kraemer at left guard would make some sense.) Bars could move to left guard, leaving right guard open for, again, Kraemer or Hainsey. (Again, moving Kraemer to guard seems an inevitability in the next three years.) There could be a thought to moving both Kraemer and Hainsey to the left side and finding a new right tackle. (Want to guess who would be projected at left guard in that scenario?)
The only certainty: Mustipher will start at center, presuming he returns. For kicks and giggles, it could be speculated how much preseason hype Mustipher will get as the stalwart of a seemingly-unproven line. That s-adjective belies a trick question; this will not be as unproven a unit as it may appear on the surface.
Replacing Nelson’s and McGlinchey’s chemistry, physicality and maturity will not happen, but there is reason to think the drop-off may not be debilitating. Mustipher can provide the steadying force for Bars to reinforce. Another year in a collegiate program should only further Hainsey’s immediate progress. A hypothetical move to guard will fit Kraemer’s skillset more naturally.
That leaves that pesky fifth starter spot. It could go to a number of options, but the frontrunners will be a quartet of youngsters already in the weight room.
Obviously, Eichenberg will get his chance. Freshman Dillan Gibbons earned offensive scout team player of the year honors last week, often a precursor to first-team contributions in the near future. All the way back on National Signing Day, this space saw Gibbons as “a prototypical Harry Hiestand offensive guard.”
If neither Eichenberg nor Gibbons, the focus will turn to freshmen Joshua Lugg and Aaron Banks. The latter enrolled early as a highly-touted tackle, part of why Hainsey’s fall emergence came as such a surprise. If any freshman was to contribute along the line, it was always assumed it would be Banks. Lugg, meanwhile, measures 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. He is a tackle in the making at some point in his Notre Dame career.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs