Notre Dame offensive line

Jobs Available: Top candidates to fill holes on Irish OL

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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.

 

LEFT TACKLE

Candidates: Alex Bars, Hunter BivinTommy 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.

 

CENTER

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.

 

RIGHT GUARD

Candidates: Colin McGovernJohn MontelusJimmy ByrneTrevor RuhlandMark HarrellSam MustipherTommy 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.

 

Steve Elmer decides to retire from football

Steve Elmer
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Steve Elmer will no longer play football. The rising senior and 30-game starter for the Irish along the offensive line has decided to move on from the sport, set to earn his degree in May, just three-and-a-half years after he enrolled early as a freshman during spring semester.

Elmer took to UND.com to pen a letter to Irish fans, explaining why he was ready to move on and pursue his professional future away from the gridiron. Head coach Brian Kelly praised Elmer, pointing to the three-year starter as the type of student-athlete that makes Notre Dame special.

“Notre Dame is a special place that develops unique and talented people. Steve Elmer is such a person,” Kelly said in a statement. “He chose Notre Dame to earn a degree from the top University in the world and play football at the highest level. He’s accomplished both and so much more.

“This is an incredible professional opportunity for Steve. We as a coaching staff talk about how attending Notre Dame isn’t a four-year decision; rather it’s a 40-year investment into your life. This University provides so many different avenues toward success, whether that’s on the football field or in the boardroom, and Steve’s another outstanding example.”

Elmer will move to Washington, D.C. this summer, putting to use a degree in economics and a grade point average that currently sits at 3.52. Elmer spent last summer interning for Michigan congressman John Moolenaar.

The timing of the decision is certainly surprising. With a year left of eligibility and a starting job all but assured, Elmer wrote candidly about the decision in front of him, acknowledging that he was ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.

“No matter how excited I am about what the future has in store for me, the question that inevitably comes up is: why don’t you just wait until next year? My answer is pretty simple; the excitement I feel about the professional opportunity in front of me has helped me to realize that I’m just ready to be done with football. I’ve been playing this game for many years, and quite honestly my heart is no longer in it. I realize that this may be considered sacrilege to some, but it’s truth. What I do love, and where my heart will always be, is the University of Notre Dame.”

The Irish will need to replace three starters along the offensive line, with Elmer’s right guard spot now vacant, joining departing center Nick Martin and left tackle Ronnie Stanley.

 

Live Video Mailbag: 7pm ET kickoff

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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For those looking to chat about football on a lovely President’s Day evening, you’re in luck. Another round of everybody’s favorite mailbag is going down tonight—and once again I’ll be on Facebook Live Video answering the questions.

Your options, if you’d like to participate:

  1. Ask your questions below (or on Twitter @KeithArnold)
  2. Log-on to Facebook and follow us here.
  3. Do nothing and come back and read/watch after.

There’s plenty of room for good questions still. Or maybe you’re saving them for Facebook. Either way, let’s see what happens as we finish off the holiday weekend chatting.

 

DEPRESSING TECHNICAL UPDATE: Thanks to everybody who hung around yesterday as my Wifi tried its best to sabotage multiple attempts at answering some questions. We’ll get this back on the books in the next week or so, and make sure it’s not on a holiday Monday before deciding to do it.

 

Re-stocking the roster: Quarterbacks

Malik Zaire
AP
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That Notre Dame’s quarterback play in 2015 created another “good problem” is a credit to the depth Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have recruited. Because heading into the season, that depth looked, once again, under attack.

That’s what happens when your fifth-year quarterback skips town after spring practice, with Everett Golson deciding to play out his eligibility in Tallahassee. That left Notre Dame with Malik Zaire at the helm and the still-anonymous DeShone Kizer as a backup.

Things don’t seem all that bleak now—not with Kizer’s huge debut season and Zaire healthy and ready for spring. But the last we had seen Kizer he was getting outplayed by walk-on Montgomery VanGorder in the spring game, putting together a performance he described as “rock bottom.” There were worries if Kizer could “fit” an offense that Zaire looked perfect for (he did quite nicely). Or if he was even good enough to hold off freshman Brandon Wimbush, an elite recruit who had a perfect skill-set for Notre Dame’s offense.

Kizer’s impressive 2015 changed the trajectory of the program, turning this spring practice into another session where all eyes will be on the quarterbacks. So let’s take a look at the position as we update the last two recruiting cycles, with the Irish adding two promising pieces to the roster.

 

DEPARTURES
None

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Brandon Wimbush (3 of 5, 17 yards; 7 carries, 96 yards, 1 TD)
Ian Book

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Malik Zaire*, Sr.
DeShone Kizer*, Jr.
Brandon Wimbush, Soph.

*Fifth-year of eligibility available. 

 

ANALYSIS
It’s another all-out quarterback battle this spring, with a national spotlight focused on Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. We’ll get back to that part in a second, but the staff’s plans with Brandon Wimbush are quite interesting as well.

Kelly acknowledged the plan to redshirt Wimbush in 2016, getting back the year of eligibility he was forced to use last season after Zaire went down in week two. That forces incoming freshman Ian Book into a unique spot, with the freshman just one hit away from being in the same place Wimbush was last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford thinks Book is ready for that challenge, an important distinction that at least counterbalances the skepticism that might have people viewing a year of the incoming 3-star recruit’s eligibility at a lesser value than Wimbush’s. (Book can earn back that year as a sophomore as well.)

Back to the main event: It’s too early to know how the Irish staff will handle things, other than to say they won’t do it like they did when it was Golson vs. Zaire. Not that there’s a worry that the loser announces his departure before the summer—neither quarterback gains anything leaving South Bend until after the 2016 season.

But there’s no incentive to name a starter any sooner than August. Especially when Notre Dame’s offensive identity will likely go through quite a makeover—tweaked offensive line, finding a replacement for Will Fuller (and C.J. Prosise) and a new set of receivers.

In many ways, a two-quarterback platoon may be a better option with this duo than the one that had so many of us (me included) excited. So whether you think Kizer or Zaire is the better candidate for the job, there’s a lot of time between now and the 2016 season opener. And the only thing that this staff knows for sure is that everybody on the roster needs to get better.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.