Alex Bars

Counting Down the Irish: 15-11

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As we continue our ascent to the top of Notre Dame’s roster, our next five members of the Top 25 play unique roles—all indicative of the talent on Brian Kelly’s seventh team.

Two young players capable of emerging as stars. Two once-heralded recruits stepping into critical roles. And a likely team captain fully transformed after an early-career position switch.

As has been the case with the list so far, there’s little from an on-field performance perspective to validate what we anticipate. But the talent in this group is undeniable, making these projections less about speculation than finally earning an opportunity.

 

2016 Irish Top 25 Rankings
25. Equanimeous St. Brown (WR, Soph.)
24. Durham Smythe (TE, Sr.
23. Justin Yoon, (K, Soph.)
22. Tyler Newsome (P, Jr.)
21. Daniel Cage (DT, Jr.)
20. Sam Mustipher (C, Jr.)
19. Jerry Tillery (DT, Soph.)
18. Max Redfield (S, Sr.)
17. CJ Sanders (WR, Soph.)
16. Drue Tranquill (S, Jr.)

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Blake Frohnapfel #7 of the Massachusetts Minutemen is sacked by James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

15. James Onwualu (OLB, Senior): After spending last season playing the majority of snaps in a platoon with Greer Martini, our panel believes that Onwualu’s final season in South Bend will be his best. The former wide receiver has fully transformed his body into that of a linebacker, but still retains the athleticism that should allow him to be excellent in space and in coverage.

Onwualu was Notre Dame’s fourth-best defensive player according to PFF College, grading out at +7.4. With Martini capable of spending time at Will linebacker, Onwualu’s production could go up along with his snap total.

Highest Rank: 12th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (two ballots).

 

South Bend Tribune

14. Alex Bars (RT, Junior): There’s a lot of belief in Bars, who’ll fill left tackle Mike McGlinchey’s shoes on the right side. It’s a move that took more of spring to finalize than some expected, mostly because Bars was still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered against USC.

Brian Kelly has raved about Bars in the past. He certainly looks the part of a high-level offensive tackle, a former elite recruit entering his third season in the program. But this is clearly a projection. He’s played roughly 150 snaps in his college career—all at right guard.

Notre Dame’s depth chart requires Bars to play on the edge. Our panel thinks he’s ready. We’ll see soon enough.

Highest Rank: 9th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

Alize Jones Temple

 

 

     

13. Alizé Jones (TE, Sophomore): Jones led all Irish pass catchers not named Will Fuller in yards per catch, a very nice datapoint for those expecting the former blue-chip recruit to take a giant leap forward in 2016. Add to that his cross-training at receiver as a replacement on the boundary side of the formation, and Jones is poised for a huge breakout.

Jones isn’t the physical mismatch that Tyler Eifert was. But he very well could be used like Eifert was in 2012, strategically moved around and mostly detached to get a mismatch down the field. If that’s the case, expect Jones’ numbers to more than multiply, with some red zone targets also a certainty with Corey Robinson gone as well.

Highest Rank: 4th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

Shaun Crawford Josh Adams

12. Shaun Crawford (DB, Sophomore): After an ACL injury ended his freshman season in training camp, Crawford returned this spring dead set on making up for lost time. He looked like the same player who was penciled into the starting nickel job, and might be too good to take off the field, possibly lining up opposite Cole Luke.

Even with a non-contact jersey on in the Blue-Gold game, Crawford was making plays everywhere. He’s undersized, but plays with a physicality that makes you ignore his height. With speed and athleticism to cover slot receivers and the confidence to play on the outside, that our panel pegs him as one of the back-seven’s best playmakers certainly says something.

Highest Rank: 7th. Lowest Rank: Unranked (one ballot).

 

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08: Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

11. Nyles Morgan (MLB, Junior): For a linebacker who couldn’t get on the field last year, this panel was certainly bullish when evaluating Nyles Morgan. The Chicagoland product steps into Joe Schmidt’s middle linebacker job ranked no lower than 17th on any ballot, with the expectation being Morgan won’t miss a beat in 2016.

From a productivity standpoint, it feels like a lock that Morgan will be one of the team’s leaders. But after watching Morgan understandably struggle with the mental demands of the position as a true freshman, we’ll find out if last season’s watch-and-learn approach pays dividends.

Highest Rank: 8th. Lowest Rank: 17th.

 

***

Our 2016 Irish Top 25 panel:
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan Driskell, Blue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Eric Murtaugh, 18 Stripes
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John VannieNDNation
Joshua Vowles, One Foot Down
John Walters, Newsweek 

Bye week snapshot: Offensive line

USA Today Sports
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Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.

 

Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.

 

Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even in the middle of a redshirt freshman season, lineman Alex Bars made sure that he’d be among the leaders in his class expected to become impact players. As the Irish were preparing for the Music City Bowl, head coach Brian Kelly singled out Bars’ performance—hopefully a sign of very good things to come.

“Alex Bars is one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years. He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about whose job he’s going to take,” Kelly said. “He’s that good of a player. If there’s one offensive player I can point to, Alex Bars clearly is the guy that stands out on offense.”

Fast-forward six months and Bars is already making his move up the depth chart. While Ronnie Stanley’s return has the left tackle position spoken for, Bars will join a rotation this fall with fellow sophomore Quenton Nelson at guard, getting his talent on the field with four seasons of eligibility remaining.

Let’s take a closer look at Alex Bars.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 316 lbs.
Soph., No. 71, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 player with elite recruiting offers. Bars chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

By every measure, the Irish legacy (father Joe played linebacker for the Irish in the early-80s) was an elite recruit.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Looks like the Crystal Ball was pretty in focus last year, though the departure of Matt Hegarty and Christian Lombard, not to mention the decision to keep Steve Elmer at guard, forces you to flip-flop the early playing assignment:

It’s getting clear that under Hiestand and Kelly, the best five linemen play. The past two seasons, they’ve shifted players to make that happen. So if Bars works his way into that conversation soon, he might find a role at right guard, where Christian Lombard departs. Nick Martin is the next lineman off the board after 2015, and at that point you begin to wonder what the optimum number is for the depth chart, with some fifth year options coming up that could be telling.

That Bars is in South Bend and not anywhere else tells you that he’s a prospect that this Irish coaching staff truly coveted. But he’ll likely spend his freshman season learning the ropes and hitting the weight room, as most freshman offensive linemen should. If Mike McGlinchey struggles at right tackle, Bars will challenge for the job in a year or two. Otherwise he could break into the rotation at guard before shifting outside to tackle during his junior and senior seasons.

Bars is right on schedule, or at least the schedule we assigned him.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

I’d be shocked if Bars wasn’t Notre Dame’s next left tackle. And as we’ve seen from the last two to play there, that’s saying quite a bit.

That being said, I don’t want to dampen the spirits of those that are expecting Bars to be an instant star, but his play this season will likely dictate how quickly he ascends to the level of standout. As we saw with Steve Elmer, sometimes a guy who looks like a no-brainer at tackle doesn’t necessarily fit there—especially after getting his first bit of playing time at guard.

But there’s no reason to think that Bars and Elmer are the same type of athlete. And all reports have Bars more than capable of handling the edge. So if he’s able to make an impact taking his snaps at guard, a position where Kelly and Harry Hiestand want maulers, he’ll certainly be ready to slide outside come 2016.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S

Post-spring stock report: Offensive Line

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If there was one thing made very clear leaving spring practice it was the state of the offensive line. After three years of restocking the depth chart, the Irish should be very good up front.

As mock draft prognosticators everywhere have pointed out all weekend, Brian Kelly did very well for himself by talking Ronnie Stanley into returning for his senior season. While we first reported that Stanley received only a second-round evaluation from the NFL’s advisory board, Stanley—at least 365 days before next season’s draft—is finding himself in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.

Setting that silliness aside (not Stanley’s draft ceiling, but rather the fact that we’re even having that conversation now), Stanley’s return turns a position of strength into a unit that could very well be dominant. With Nick Martin spending spring healthy and playing center, a mix of veterans and ascending youth creates a nice depth chart to make Harry Hiestand’s position group one that should be ready to dominate in the trenches.

Let’s get a look at the post-spring depth chart and check out some movers and shakers after a revealing spring practice.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr. (6-5.5, 318)
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.* (6-4.5, 325)
C: Nick Martin, GS (6-4.5, 301)
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr. (6-5.5, 315)
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.* (6-7.5, 310)

LT: Alex Bars, Soph* (6-6, 316)
or Hunter Bivin, Jr.* (6-5.5, 302)
LG: Alex Bars, Soph.* (6-6, 316)
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.* (6-2, 305)
RG: John Montelus, Jr.* (6-4, 310)
RT: Colin McGovern, Jr.* (6-4.5, 315)

OT: Mark Harrell, Sr.* (6-4, 306)
OG: Jimmy Byrne, Soph.* (6-4, 295)
C: Tristen Hoge, Fr. (6-4.5, 281)

*Denotes fifth year available

 

STOCK UP

Ronnie Stanley: In his first spring practice at Notre Dame where he was fully healthy, Stanley took the strides forward expected of him. With a key 2015 season in front of him, Stanley is going to play next season with a bullseye on his chest—one that comes from evaluations like this:

Staying healthy and getting better were the keys to spring. That he showed some pretty impressive athleticism (and didn’t get hurt) on a screen pass during the Blue-Gold game were the perks. Now it’s time to see if Stanley can play to the level Zack Martin did, without the ability to fly under the radar of the player-evaluating media members.

 

Nick Martin: Perhaps we’ll see Martin at his best next season. Because after hearing Brian Kelly tell it, Martin played far from there last season, not just hampered by a hand injury, but still feeling the lingering effects from a serious knee injury suffered late in the 2013 season that robbed him of lower-body strength.

With Martin back at center, the Irish offensive line should be able to line up its five best players, led by the returning captain and Stanley. Getting healthy and stronger at the point of attack were key. Using his football IQ—and pairing it with the physicality necessary to be dominant—are necessary to have a top-flight center in his fifth season.

 

Mike McGlinchey: We’re looking at McGlinchey as a returning starter, not technically true considering McGlinchey only played in that role during garbage time against USC and getting his first start against LSU. But McGlinchey looks comfortable in the starting lineup, a position he nearly found himself in after spending last spring as the team’s right tackle.

But McGlinchey took a big step forward this spring, as the imposing right tackle will be a key to keeping everything together if the Irish are going to have the powerful ground game many expect. A natural athlete who has earned praise for his work on the practice field, McGlinchey gets his opportunity to show off on Saturdays this season, a key building block up front.

 

Steve Elmer: After struggling at tackle to start last season, Elmer slid back inside to guard after a rocky start, finding his footing on the interior, where he played as a freshman. It was one piece of a four-man shift, helping the Irish solidify their front five.

At his best, Elmer is dominant. At his worst? Well, the tape looked pretty bad. This spring was spent ironing out some technical mistakes, the type that come from moving around and being thrown to the wolves early.

A cerebral player who also has a tremendous physical skill set, Elmer enters his junior season poised to put it all together. That started to show itself this spring.

 

Quenton Nelson & Alex Bars: I’m pairing these two together because get ready to see them stuck together for the next few years. Nelson emerged as the starting left guard as practice wore on, though Kelly committed to getting Bars the snaps needed to advance his craft—either platooning with Nelson or somewhere else.

But after Ronnie Stanley moves to the NFL, expect these two to line up next to each other on the left side of the offensive line, with Bars playing tackle and Nelson mauling people from the guard spot. That Bars isn’t thrown in is a luxury that not many coaches have, and Kelly’s already called Bars one of the most natural talents he’s had in 20-plus years.

In all likelihood, Bars is the sixth man on this offensive line, capable of coming in at tackle, even if Hunter Bivin is listed as the No. 2 behind Stanley. So after a redshirt year for both talented youngsters, these two represent the future of the Irish offensive line. And we’ll get to see them compete come September.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Colin McGovern: Last year, I got the feeling that McGovern was making his move—a versatile lineman capable of stepping in if needed. But watching Nelson and Bars jump past McGovern, and hearing other names come out of Brian Kelly’s mouth, it’ll be interesting to see where McGovern fits into the puzzle this season.

He’s likely the next offensive tackle off the bench behind Bars, and if injuries pile up he’ll have a chance to be in the thick of it. But in a critical spring where the depth chart is showing its strength—offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he has ten offensive linemen he feels can contribute, Kelly tabbed seven of eight—McGovern is likely in that group, but near the bottom.

That’s not the spring I expected from him, but he’s still likely capable of helping Notre Dame win.

 

Sam Mustipher: If we’re looking at the last two seasons, we’ve seen plenty of movement at center, with Martin’s injuries and Matt Hegarty’s surprising departure. Enter Mustipher, who’ll serve (or is listed as) the team’s second-string center. That’s a big responsibility for a convert to the position, really only seen at the position these 15 practices.

There were a few shaky snaps this spring game, including one roller, that have some worried about Mustipher. But with Tristen Hoge likely redshirting this year before getting into the battle for a starting job, Mustipher is the guy who gets the first call—and this spring didn’t necessarily convince anybody that he was ready to do it.

 

STOCK DOWN

Hunter Bivin: This might not be fair because we only saw limited reps, but count me among the skeptics that Bivin is ready to be on the field as a left tackle. Once a promising recruit, Bivin has jumped around the offensive line trying to find a proper fit, but backing up Ronnie Stanley doesn’t look like the best one for him.

Entering his junior season, it’s way too early to cast Bivin off. And his struggles getting on the field speak more to the strength of those ahead of him than to anything he’s not doing.

But against a far from elite set of defensive ends in the Blue-Gold game, Bivin struggled protecting off the edge. That puts the onus on Stanley to stay healthy and Bars ready to compete, because through my eyes, Bivin still needs some work before he can hold his own at left tackle.

 

Mark Harrell: One of the veterans along the offensive line, Harrell spent last Blue-Gold game at center, a few wayward snaps getting him noticed for the wrong reasons. Entering his fourth season in South Bend, Harrell spent this spring buried on the depth chart, a long road between him and the field.

Originally targeted by Ohio State coach Ed Warinner when he was in South Bend, it’s hard seeing where Harrell fits into the puzzle in 2015. But he’s got the type of versatility, not to mention experience in the system, to be an interesting test case up front. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t look possible for him to see the field unless injuries strike or the Irish are winning comfortably.

Bars and Nelson impressing at left guard

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Matt Hegarty’s unexpected departure opened up a job along the offensive line. With fifth-year center Nick Martin back in the middle, Hegarty choosing to go somewhere else to play center opened up the competition at left guard.

Sophomores Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson were pegged early by head coach Brian Kelly as the two likely candidates to fill the left guard job. And one-third of the way through spring practice, Notre Dame’s head coach has seen nothing that leads him to believe that the two first-year competitors won’t be ready come September.

It’s just a matter of how he’ll pick just one for the job.

Both highly-touted redshirt freshmen are as good as they came into South Bend advertised. Yet they both bring a different style of play to the game.

Here’s how Kelly described his two freshmen, and where they stood moving forward in the battle for the left guard job.

“I would probably handicap it in this respect. Quenton Nelson is extremely explosive, strong, and can overwhelm a defender,” Kelly said of the 325-pounder. “Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt-freshman. Technically he’s so good.

“You have two guys here, one who physically at times can be dominant, and one who you think he’s a junior, that he’s been in the program three or four years.You turn on the film and to me, it’s going to be hard to make a call because you like what they both do at that position.”

If Ronnie Stanley didn’t return for his senior season, it’s likely Bars would be playing left tackle right now. But Stanley’s return keeps Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman on campus, and allows Bars to fight for the final open spot in the starting lineup before likely shifting outside in 2016.

While Bars isn’t the prototype that Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand look for in an interior player, he’s too good not to play. Kelly was candid about making sure that both Bars and Nelson are going to play in 2015.

“They’ll have to both play. They’re going to have to get in the game,” Kelly said. “It might be that Bars plays some tackle, too.

“If he’s the guard he’s the guard. We don’t see Q as a tackle right now, but they’re just guys that are going to have to play. They’re both going to see some playing time for us.”