Steve Elmer’s decision to hang up the cleats opens a third job on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. A group that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award now needs to replace the majority of its starters, with only first-year contributors Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson returning starters.
The Irish already had to replace the 76 starts that Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley had. Add in Elmer’s 30 and it’s over 100 starts departed—a unique predictor for success in the college football ranks.
With the recruiting that Hiestand and Brian Kelly have done up front, nobody expects the Irish offensive line to fall off a cliff, even with three new starters and only 25 starts returning. So with a month until spring ball kicks off, let’s take a look at the candidates to fill the three vacancies.
Candidates: Alex Bars, Hunter Bivin, Tommy Kraemer, and Mike McGlinchey
Bivin filled the role of backup to Stanley in 2015 while Bars earned playing time as the understudy to Nelson at guard until he broke his ankle in his first start. Both seem like viable options. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that the last time Notre Dame needed to find a left tackle, they simply flipped their starter from the right side across the line, putting Ronnie Stanley into Zack Martin’s job.
That seems less likely with McGlinchey, especially with his prototype size for the right side and some capable replacements. While the staff has praised the 6-foot-8 tackle for his athleticism, asking him to move to the left side could neutralize some of the elite run-blocking skills he displayed in his first season as starter.
The wildcard in all of this is Kraemer, who won’t be on campus until June, but is the type of high-ceiling, national recruit who could conceivably step into the starting lineup from day one. That’s far from ideal, even if Kraemer is as good as people think he could be.
My Hunch: Ultimately, I think this is Bars’ job—provided he’s healthy after breaking his ankle. Bivin looks like the type of “swing” player Kelly mentioned on Signing Day as the Irish try and fortify (and reload) their recruiting efforts going forward.
Candidates: Sam Mustipher, Mark Harrell, or Tristen Hoge
Mustipher emerged last season as the key backup for Nick Martin, a job that seemed to be one of the hardest to fit on the offensive line. That likely was a big reason why the Irish were so keen to land a prospect like Hoge, a true center on an offensive line that had recruited interior players and converted them to the position. During a freshman season spent redshirting, Hoge earned a few mentions from his head coach, who claimed he was capable of being activated if the need arose.
It’s hard to question the results Notre Dame has had at the position. Matt Hegarty and Martin both were successful transitions to position. Now spring will give us a better look to see if it’s a veteran transplant like Mustipher (or Harrell) who gets the first shot at starting or if Hoge is ready to step in and take over a position he’ll likely handle for four seasons.
My Hunch: I think Mustipher gets the first shot at the job, with his work last season giving him that opportunity. But I won’t be surprised if Hoge makes a move throughout spring, with this battle going all the way to fall camp.
Ultimately, what’s going on during offseason workouts might play a part in this battle as well. The staff wasn’t taking a redshirt off of Hoge unless they really needed to do it. With his eligibility clock ticking this year regardless, there’s nothing tipping the scales one way or the other.
Candidates: Colin McGovern, John Montelus, Jimmy Byrne, Trevor Ruhland, Mark Harrell, Sam Mustipher, Tommy Kraemer
No job seems more wide open than the one that literally opened up Tuesday morning. While the news didn’t hit Notre Dame’s staff by surprise, it does turn a backlog of former blue-chip recruits into potential starters, giving new life to some veterans who now could slide into the starting lineup.
If you’re looking at experienced program players, you could focus your attention on guys like Colin McGovern or John Montelus. Then there’s young guys like Trevor Ruhland, or a freshman like Tommy Kraemer—too good to keep off the field, but not quite ready to play tackle.
At this point, we know so little about the linemen who haven’t had their chance to play yet. This could also include someone like Mustipher, a swing player who might not be a center unless he wins a starting job there. We’ve seen Kelly take his offensive line and crosstrain players, a veteran Mike Golic found plenty of playing time between guard and center. And with Elmer’s playing grades the lowest among the returning starters, this spot was likely more of a competition than you’d have expected anyway.
My Hunch: Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought Colin McGovern had the look of a starter. The problem seemed to be opportunity, and that certainly exists now. Of course, we’ve only seen glimpses of the depth behind Elmer these past years. So it could just as easily be any of the other half-dozen options that get the first shot to start, with McGovern a hunch if there ever was one.
This battle is as wide open as any I can remember on the offensive line under Kelly. Usually that’s a bad thing. In this case, I think having the best man win is a great thing for a position group that can use this competition to infuse energy into the spring.