Keith Arnold

Notre Dame offensive line
USA Today Sports

Last Look: Offensive Line

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Protecting a first-year passer and a backfield of inexperienced runners, Notre Dame fielded what could be the school’s most explosive offense ever. While most of that praise has been heaped on Will Fuller, C.J. Promise, DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams, you could just as easily point to the performance of the Irish offensive line as the key driver for that success.

While the highlight reel might only show the big uglies catching up in the end zone to celebrate, Harry Hiestand’s group put together their most consistent showing of the Brian Kelly era, doing so with a talented front five that features NFL talent across the board. Exceptional at protecting the passer and creating running lanes, it may not have been an entirely consistent season, but the starting five deserved its reputation as one of the best units in the country.

While the current challenge is finding replacements for Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, let’s take a final look back at the 2015 offensive line’s performance. With PFF College’s grading system as our guide, here’s the closest thing to a statistical breakdown you’ll find of an offensive line, a position group that never has an army of stats tracking their success, but is vital to a team’s performance nonetheless.

OL Grades

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MVP: Ronnie Stanley. No, his season wasn’t perfect. But Stanley played 2015 with crosshairs on him and made it through with his first round grade intact. That Stanley wasn’t the team’s highest-graded offensive line might be a surprise. But a deeper dig into Stanley—not just the draft prospect, but the present-day football player—shouldn’t make this revelation so jaw-dropping. What makes teams covet Stanley isn’t necessarily his work on the field (yet) but the stunning skill-set that perfectly blends athleticism and size, a football player whose best days are still ahead of him.

So while Stanley’s final season wasn’t at Zack Martin’s level, it was still pretty solid. He struggled at times with penalties, though some of that could be attributed to an inconsistent snap count by rookie QBs and some of the growing pains that come with seeing and experiencing things for the first time.  Stanley struggled in the run game against Clemson (who didn’t?) and played subpar against Wake Forest. But other than that he received a positive grade in every start, a standout performer on the blind side en route to All-American honors and the team’s offensive player of the year award.

With another left tackle off to an NFL team in the first round, Notre Dame fans should look back on this incredible six-year run of Martin and Stanley and tip a cap. Because that duo has left huge shoes to fill—and Stanley looks poised to be another ND great succeeding at the next level.

 

Rising Stars: Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson quickly become anchors.  That McGlinchey and Nelson so quickly turned into dominant players is a great sign for the future. Both are mauling offensive linemen, hardly the finesse performers that have sometimes plagued Kelly’s (and Hiestand’s) lines.

McGlinchey stepped in at right tackle after Christian Lombard played through injury last season. That he led the Irish in overall grade makes you wonder not just if he should’ve been playing in 2014, but if he’s the next NFL prospect that’ll have scouts drooling. At 6-foot-8 and a skinny 310 pounds, outside of a tough night in Death Valley, McGlinchey was dominant.

Nelson’s toughness was on display when the sophomore gutted his way through a major ankle injury and fought his way back onto the field after Alex Bars went down. Nelson’s strength—literally—made his run blocking an immediate forte. While he struggled some in the three-game stretch of Clemson, USC and Temple (he missed a one game in the middle of that stretch as he struggled with an ankle injury), he finished the season strong, playing two nice games against Stanford and Ohio State, building blocks for 2016.

Yes, questions about replacing Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley will certainly exist this spring. But this ascending duo will cushion that blow.

 

He’ll be missed: Nick Martin creates a huge hole at center. 

What Notre Dame does at center this spring should be revealing. Brian Kelly has praised the work of rising sophomore Tristen Hoge. Sam Mustipher filled in admirably for Martin in 2015, though a few shotgun snaps still felt like an adventure for the converted guard.

That Notre Dame finally recruited a natural center in Hoge is telling. Kelly has converted his centers since inheriting Braxston Cave when he arrived in 2010. Martin’s performance the past few seasons has him in line to be a mid-round draft pick, especially after a solid Senior Bowl week showing off his versatility. How the Irish replace him is maybe even a bigger question than how they find their next left tackle.

 

Needs Improvement: Steve Elmer needs to rally in his senior season. One look at PFF’s grades makes it apparent that Elmer had a down season. No starter had a grade even close to the negative number the junior put up. After seeing the field as a true freshman starter and then yo-yo’ing between tackle and guard as a sophomore, most expected consistency from Elmer in 2015. That wasn’t the case.

There’s still plenty to like about Elmer’s future and every reason to think he can not just rebound in 2016 but find a way to play on Sundays. He’s got exceptional size for an interior player. He’s a good enough athlete. But Elmer needs to correct his “big miss,” and we’ve seen it all too often in the run game as he’s badly whiffed on a block when his technique and body get out of position.

Last week rumors swirled after Irish Sports Daily’s Power Hour mentioned that Elmer might be considering an academics-only senior year, leaving behind his final season of eligibility. (I haven’t heard that rumor.) That move would force the Irish staff to replace a 30-game starter. Elmer’s far too talented to take off the field, but his backups also are too good to concede a starting job to someone underperforming. So Elmer will need to rebound in 2016 for the line—and Elmer—to reach their potential.

 

Biggest Question: Can Alex Bars step in at left tackle? After his sophomore season was cut short by an ankle injury, Bars will likely transition back to offensive tackle, the odds-on-favorite to get first crack at replacing Ronnie Stanley. While Bars served as a platoon-mate (or more accurately, understudy) to classmate Quenton Nelson at left guard, he’s a natural tackle.

It’s worth pointing out that it was Hunter Bivin who served as Ronnie Stanley’s backup in 2015. Bivin has bounced around the offensive line, trying everything from center to tackle in a quest to find a position. But this staff thinks the world of Bars, and Kelly has praised the young player from jump street. If Bars’ ankle is good to go come spring practice, we’ll see if he’s given the first shot to run with the first team or if Kelly and Hiestand stick with Bivin, a senior at a position where the staff certainly appreciates veterans.

Brian Kelly extends Notre Dame contract through 2021

Brian Kelly
AP
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Brian Kelly isn’t going anywhere.

After having his name thrown into the pot with every NFL vacancy, Notre Dame and its head football coach have agreed to a long-term contract extension, keeping Kelly atop the program through the 2021 season.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced the news via press release Friday afternoon.

“In the classroom, in the community and on the playing field, Brian has built the foundation of a great Notre Dame football program–one that reflects this University’s values and its unique relationship to the game of football,” Swarbrick said in the release. “I could not be more excited about the future of our football program under Brian’s leadership, and I am especially thankful that our student-athletes will continue to have the benefit of that leadership in the years to come.”

Kelly recently completed his sixth season as head coach of the Irish, his 25th season atop a program since his days at Grand Valley State in the D-II ranks. His record in South Bend is 55-23, with his teams bowl eligible in every season, along with a 12-win campaign (and berth in BCS title game) and 10-win 2015. Only Lou Holtz and Ara Parseghian had two double-digit win seasons at Notre Dame. Kelly’s contract would make 12 seasons as head coach at Notre Dame, one more than Lou Holtz and one less than the 13 Knute Rockne spent running the program.

Kelly has routinely stated over the past few years that he has no interest in heading to the NFL. That belief has been challenged, mostly because he spoke with the Philadelphia Eagles in the days following his team’s loss in the BCS title game against Alabama. Those rumors will likely end with this extension—another stabilizing factor for a once wobbly program now on solid ground.

“I want to thank Father Jenkins and the leadership of Notre Dame for their confidence in me,” Kelly said in the same statement. “I coach football because I believe there are few better avenues for impacting the lives of young men, and I am certain that there is no better place to do that than the University of Notre Dame. During the next six years I look forward to continuing to lead a championship caliber program, but more importantly I look forward to continuing to help the student-athletes I coach to achieve greatness as football players, as students and as men who will make a difference in families, communities and organizations they will someday lead.”

 

Irish state their case to 5-star LB Ben Davis

Ben Davis
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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Some thought even getting 5-star linebacker Ben Davis onto campus was the recruiting victory. But after Brian Kelly went in-home with the top prospect in the state of Alabama—and a Crimson Tide legacy, no less—the head coach’s impact wasn’t lost on the Under Armour All-American.

Notre Dame’s visit with Davis went well. How well? It sounds like Davis is hitting reboot on his decision, telling Blue & Gold’s Andrew Ivins that he has “no leader” after welcoming Kelly and four assistants into his home.

This, from the surprising report from our friends at B&G:

“It’s going to be interesting,” Davis said. “The visit was unbelievable. I have never had that many coaches from one school come … I named Alabama my leader because I had a great visit, but right now I don’t have a leader because my eyes have opened up.”

Kelly was joined by Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, linebackers coach Mike Elston, running backs coach Autry Denson and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght.

Davis said the head man made his final face-to-face pitch simple.

“He said there’s plenty of playing time. If I come up there, I’m going to have to play and contribute early. He said there’s a great support staff there and that I would have not only for the four years that I’m there, but also when I graduate,” Davis said.

Notre Dame’s final week has been one of the more impressive recruiting pushes I can remember. These visits are a long way from the Ty-Willingham-Won’t-Leave-Brian-Toal’s-Living-Room era. While we won’t find out if the efforts net Davis, or fellow 5-stars Caleb Kelly and Demetris Robertson, long gone are the days when Notre Dame’s coaching staff rested on the laurels of their blue-chip brand.

Credit first-year assistant Autry Denson for making the in-roads with Davis. The blue-chip linebacker told Irish 247’s Tom Loy that he views Denson as a brother and that they’ll “maintain a friendship for life.” That’s the type of recruiter Notre Dame needed when they replaced Tony Alford, and Denson did a heckuva job with his young position group, too.

Kelly’s sales pitch to Davis is probably more true than even Irish fans want to acknowledge. While Nyles Morgan is the heir apparent to Joe Schmidt in the middle of the Irish defense, to think there isn’t room for a prospect like Davis in a linebacking corps that returns only James Onwualu (10th on the defense in total snaps) to the starting lineup would be under-appreciating Davis’ talent.

The Alabama native is visiting Auburn this weekend on an official visit. He’ll make his decision live on ESPNU on Wednesday morning at 9 a.m.

 

Irish back up the semi-truck (literally) for Demetris Robertson

Demetris Robertson
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Recruitin’.

With less than a week until National Signing Day, Notre Dame is locked in a very tight battle for 5-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson. With several teams, including new Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, putting on a full-court press, several rumors are swirling about an extended recruitment of Robertson that could go past next Wednesday, with news changing by the day on the pursuit of one of the nation’s top athletes.

Some Irish fans have already waved the white flag. Notre Dame’s coaching staff? Well, they’ve gone all in.

Thursday morning, the Irish brought ND One—the team’s equipment truck—to Savannah, Georgia, parking the 18-wheeler outside of Robertson’s house, and then driving it to his high school. The 5-star recruit took to Twitter to share the impressive sight:

It was a move hinted at by offensive coordinator Mike Sanford on Twitter, who was joined by associate head coach Mike Denbrock in Savannah for the visit to Robertson (and a Waffle House). For those who have forgotten, Denbrock was in Fresno late Tuesday night visiting Caleb Kelly, only to fly across the country to be in Savannah a little more than 24 hours later.

Will the Irish land Robertson? We won’t know until the talented all-purpose athlete sends his letter-of-intent to the school of his choice. But with less than a week until recruits can formalize their scholarships and schools can announce their signing classes, Notre Dame is pulling out all the stops to land a difference maker who could potentially fill Will Fuller‘s shoes.

Irish staff go in-home with 5-star LB Caleb Kelly

Caleb Kelly
Rivals / Yahoo Sports
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With just one week until Signing Day, Notre Dame’s coaching staff is covering the country in pursuit of some final key pieces to their 2016 recruiting class. Last night, that brought Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Elston to Fresno, California, where the staff went in-home with 5-star recruit and high school Butkus Award winner Caleb Kelly.

While some quotes are already trickling in from Kelly, who spoke with Irish 247 after Notre Dame’s staff left the family house, Twitter provided some nice updates as well (including some recruiting from some Irish commits):

At this point, discussing the on-field piece of the puzzle is finished. Kelly profiles as an outside linebacker in Notre Dame’s system, with the possibility to grow and put a hand on the ground and rush the passer as his career continues. With a linebacking corps that needs rebuilding after 2015, Kelly has an opportunity to step in and play a variety of spots—something Blue & Gold’s Bryan Driskell broke down earlier this week.

With the football out of the way, Kelly and his mom hosted Notre Dame’s staff, the final in-home visit from the Irish coaching staff before Kelly announces his intentions at 5:30 p.m. local time next Wednesday.

“It was fun,” Kelly told Tom Loy of Irish 247. “It was great hanging out with everyone, just relaxing, talking about everything. It was pretty casual and just laid back.”

Once again, it looks like Notre Dame will be battling Oklahoma for Kelly’s commitment, with Bob Stoops and company already well established in California’s Central Valley. But the Irish staff feels good about their chances with one of the top players in the country, and this recruitment will likely last until a fax rolls into a football office Wednesday evening.