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Friday at 4: Offensive Line Depth

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I would not have this idea if the usual distraction had shown up to Wednesday night trivia this week. Alas, the opportunity to hear the front man from The Messengers was more alluring than debating what countries Reebok, Puma and Asics were founded in (United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, respectively).

So instead of making unfortunately-idle conversation about the luxurious pleasure of smoking a cigar during a long drive across Wisconsin, I had to engage in real conversation with an aforementioned friend, Corey. It’s not that I don’t enjoy talking with Corey. It’s that I do it enough already. I’ve always preferred the devil I don’t know.

Corey’s question was valid, posed only hours after the announcement of sophomore offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux’s transfer release. Combined with Monday’s news of junior offensive lineman Tristen Hoge’s transfer to BYU, Corey had reason to wonder about the Irish offensive line depth.

“But really, how often does Notre Dame actually need more than one backup offensive lineman?” he asked.

In order to hide my lack of an immediate answer, I asked him to focus on what the name was of Paul Tibbets’ mother. Tibbets flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in World War II. Unfortunately for me, Corey had already written down “Enola” and it was back to his offensive line query.

The short answer: Not since 2013.

The long answer: Transfers of non-starters along the offensive line are not the huge deal they are made out to be, especially in the short-term. Boudreaux was working as a third-string center. Hoge did provide depth along the three interior line positions, but he was not a starter this year and would have needed to beat out a number of competitors at left guard next year (or right guard if senior Alex Bars were to move to the left side). That list includes, but is not necessarily limited to, early-enrolled freshmen Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks, senior Jimmy Byrne and incoming freshmen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons. Hainsey, specifically, could loom large in that positional struggle in a year.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget about junior Trevor Ruhland. He is, after all, now the presumptive seventh offensive lineman behind the starters and fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin.

While answering Corey’s question, let’s grant the assumption Bivin has continued to progress. Even without the transfers of Hoge and Boudreaux, that theory needed to become reality. The question regarding depth has never been about the sixth offensive lineman. It regards the seventh.

But will that seventh be needed?

Last year, Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was blessed with four 12-game starters, and it should be noted all four returned this season. Right guard Colin McGovern started eight games last year, with injuries limiting him in three of the other four and keeping him out of the Stanford game entirely. Bivin and Mark Harrell filled in for McGovern. While Bivin’s performance against Stanford and eventual No. 3 overall NFL Draft pick Solomon Thomas prompted the move to another option in Harrell, only one capable substitute was genuinely necessary. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 70 Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 318 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Fifth-year senior with eligibility remaining in only 2017
Depth chart: Bivin provides depth across the entire offensive line with the possible exceptions of right tackle and center. In theory, only an injury would lead to Bivin starting, but he quite literally backs up at least three positions, and could become the primary support at center now thanks to this week’s transfers of junior Tristen Hoge and sophomore Parker Boudreaux.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Bivin committed to Notre Dame early, in March of his recruiting cycle. That seems to be a theme when Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand identifies a high-priority target. An Under Armour All-American, Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Clemson, Florida and Michigan, among others. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 12 tackle in his class, the No. 2 prospect in Kentucky and the No. 162 recruit in the country.

CAREER TO DATE
Bivin preserved a year of eligibility in 2013 before seeing action in five games in 2014. In his junior season, Bivin saw spot duty on the offensive line while contributing on special teams, seeing time in 12 games.

Last season, Bivin played in all 12 games, including a start at right guard against Stanford due to a Colin McGovern injury. Stanford star defensive tackle Solomon Thomas had his way with the Notre Dame interior line that day, but it is hard to knock Bivin too much for struggling against the eventual third overall NFL Draft pick. Nonetheless, Mark Harrell received the starts when McGovern went down again at the end of the season.

QUOTE(S)
Bivin was never much in the competition for a starting spot this spring. Per Irish coach Brian Kelly, that was partly to give the younger options — namely sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg — chances to prove themselves before inserting Bivin into the conversation.

“We had asked [Bivin] to give up some reps, but we’re going to crank him back up next week and give him the opportunity to get in the mix as well,” Kelly said in March.

More realistically, Kelly compared Bivin to Harrell from a year ago, a stopgap across the offensive line providing depth when needed.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us, a guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions,” Kelly said. “We trust him, but we want to see these two younger players.

“Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us to be a swing guy for us.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

“Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and [current senior left guard] Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like [current senior right guard Alex] Bars and [current senior center] Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body — he’s got prototype tackle size — and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

“But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

“If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Obviously, Bivin did not bring Keith’s prerequisite of aggressiveness to the guard position. This spring, it was a foregone conclusion in Kelly’s and Hiestand’s minds it would be better to establish a sophomore at right tackle and move Bars to right guard than to keep Bars at right tackle and consider Bivin at right guard.

Perhaps that is done with an eye on the offensive line’s ceiling, or perhaps with an eye on the future. Most likely, that is done with a belief that setup will be best for 2017.

Thus, Bivin is indeed in the sixth-man role Keith projected. Keith just had no way of knowing how vital that role could prove to be this year. Presume Eichenberg backs up Kraemer, or vice versa, at right tackle. After that, Bivin very well could be the primary backup at each position if injury should arise. For example, if McGlinchey were to fall, Hiestand said Bivin would step in.

“Then we’d have to see how serious [the injury] was before we flipped sides for those young guys.”

At left guard, the best other option behind Nelson may be junior Trevor Ruhland, who saw action in nine games last season but none of significant note. At center, thanks to this week’s departures, if Bivin is not the top backup, an injury to Mustipher could still lead to him starting if, for example, Bars moves to the middle.

The point is, aside from sophomore quarterback Ian Book, Bivin will be Notre Dame’s most vital backup in 2017. It may be preferable he see meaningful snaps only here-and-there, but he will need to be ready for those snaps at all times at a number of positions.

DOWN THE ROAD
This is it, and, frankly, if you can’t start for a college team as a fifth-year senior, the NFL isn’t going to sniff around much.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 73: (theoretically): Josh Lugg, offensive tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career end by medical hardship

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 71 Alex Bars, offensive lineman

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-6, 320 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: If someone were to clone Bars, he would start at both right-side offensive line positions. Without that controversial leap forward in technology, he is set to start at right guard with fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin backing him up, though Bivin provides that support across much of the line.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Bars committed to Notre Dame early, turning down offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford and many other perennial college football powers. An Under Armour All-American, rivals.com named Bars the No. 4 player in Tennessee, the No. 10 offensive tackle in the country and the No. 98 overall prospect.

CAREER TO DATE
Bars preserved a year of eligibility in 2014 before beginning 2015 as the primary backup to four of the five offensive line positions (not at center). He saw action in four games in that role before stepping in for an injured [now-senior] Quenton Nelson as the starting left guard. Two games later, Bars broke his ankle, ending his season in October.

Last year, Bars started all 12 games at right tackle. This spring, he moved inside to right guard to make space for either of the sophomore duo of Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg.

QUOTE(S)
Irish coach Brian Kelly did allow during spring practice it is within the realm of possibility Bars takes over at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position,” Kelly said in March. “But we know he can play the [right tackle] position.”

That same week, Kelly described the right guard spot as “firmly established” thanks to Bars.

“Alex Bars is going to be the right guard,” Kelly said. “I don’t see that there’s going to be any real change there. He was a starter for us last year.”

In April, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand praised Bars’ progress at his new position, while also acknowledging his known skill for the right tackle spot.

“Alex could be good at both,” Hiestand said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to say [right guard is] his best position, but he’s really learning guard and doing well right now. That’s what’s best for us.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

“Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or [now fifth-year senior left tackle] Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

“Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.”

2017 OUTLOOK
The last sentence of Hiestand’s above quote sums up the dichotomy of Bars’ coming season. Tackle might be his better position personally, but Bars playing at right guard is “what’s best for us.” One way or another, Bars and either Kraemer or Eichenberg will make up the right side of the line. Bars is more established at both right guard and right tackle than either sophomore, but the gap between him and the better of the two at tackle is less than it is at guard, so the greater sum includes Bars at guard.

At least, that is the theory. Whether it is utilized in practice will depend on how Kraemer and/or Eichenberg performs in fall camp. The best-case scenario sees that theory realized, in no small part because it would allow Bars to excel a bit more in run blocking, the area of the game where he is at his best.

If he has to move outside to tackle, that figures to be a slight step backward for the Irish line as a whole. Hiestand has always shown a distinct preference for finding the best five-man unit, not for placing linemen where they perform best individually.

DOWN THE ROAD
On some level, one wonders if the insistence on moving Bars to guard is also an attempt to find tackle depth for 2018, when McGlinchey is enjoying the perks of being an early-round NFL Draft pick. Bars has proven he can play tackle. Hiestand probably hopes for someone else to also prove that in the near future, so he has enough experienced options to fill the line in 2018 if no new arrivals step forward.

Even if that stray thought does have some validity, Bars has shown before he can excel at guard. Frankly, his physical gifts set him up well for any of the four tackle or guard positions. That versatility combined with his size bodes well for NFL conversations following the 2018 season.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 73: (theoretically): Josh Lugg, offensive tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career end by medical hardship

Notre Dame TE Tyler Luatua’s career ended by medical hardship

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Senior tight end Tyler Luatua’s football career has come to an abrupt end. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced a medical hardship will prevent Luatua from continuing to play, though he will remain enrolled at Notre Dame on scholarship as he pursues a degree.

“It’s always a difficult decision for a player to step away from football,” Kelly said. “Most importantly, Tyler will still have an opportunity to earn his degree from the University.”

In the case of a medical waiver, the scholarship no longer counts against the NCAA limit of 85, putting Notre Dame now at 83 scholarship players by rough math.

Luatua appeared in all 12 games last season, though largely on special teams. Before last spring’s practices, he briefly publicly entertained a transfer to BYU, before changing his mind in time for Kelly and the Irish to accept him back onto the roster.

This spring early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright appeared to pass Luatua on the depth chart, partly due to the latter’s limitations in the passing game. With Wright ahead of him, Luatua was, at best, the fifth tight end in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme.

Nonetheless, it is never a happy ending when medical reasons truncate a passion.


No. 13
Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 ½, 260 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with only 2017 eligibility remaining
Depth Chart: As mentioned above, Luatua had slid down the depth chart largely due to the talent influx provided by the incoming freshman class and the return of junior Alizé Mack. Fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and Mack headline the tight ends, and senior Nic Weishar’s better receiving acumen than Luatua elevated Weishar to the No. 3 spot, a coveted position in Long’s offense which often depends on two tight ends. With Wright also moving past Luatua, and incoming freshman Cole Kmet looming, Luatua did not project for much action this season.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star prospect, and the No. 12 tight end in the class of 2014, Luatua enjoyed offers from many of the nation’s premier programs, including Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State. Aside from Notre Dame, Luatua most considered Alabama. (more…)

Notre Dame OL Parker Boudreaux granted transfer release

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Two days after his backup center counterpart transferred, sophomore Parker Boudreaux has been given permission to do the same.

Irish coach Brian Kelly announced a release for Boudreaux to seek a transfer Wednesday afternoon.

“We thank Parker for his work, dedication and commitment to our program over the last year and wish him nothing but the best moving forward,” Kelly said.

Both Boudreaux and junior Tristen Hoge were stuck behind senior center Sam Mustipher, who started 12 games last season and has two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2017. That said, with Hoge’s departure to BYU earlier in the week, Boudreaux appeared to be one snap away from playing time.

Without them, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will need to look for another option to provide depth on the interior. Fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin has been the prime candidate to back up the other four positions on the line, and could be considered along with junior Trevor Ruhland. A few freshmen could also provide peace of mind, though admittedly all hopes would be Mustipher avoids injury.

Boudreaux marks the third transfer in nearly exactly one week, with junior linebacker Josh Barajas (FCS-level Illinois State) kicking things off May 31.


No. 50
Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 288 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season, though if Boudreaux transfers to an FBS-level program, he will need to sit out 2017 and then will have only three years of eligibility remaining
Depth Chart: Boudreaux was never going to be the top option in 2017 unless Mustipher suffered an injury.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Boudreaux chose Notre Dame over a bevy of offers, including from Alabama, Clemson and Florida. Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 21 line prospect in the class and No. 46 recruit in Florida in the class of 2016.

CAREER TO DATE
Boudreaux preserved a year of eligibility in 2016. (more…)