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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.

Hiestand was even more fortunate in 2015. Four linemen started all 13 games. Left guard and now-senior Quenton Nelson started 11 with Bars filling in the other two. Again, only one additional lineman was necessary.

In 2014, a reshuffling of the line after three games led to a total of seven linemen seeing competitive snaps, but without that reshuffling, the number would have been only six. After three games, right guard Conor Hanratty went to the bench, Matt Hegarty took over at center, and the rest of line switched spots to work with that substitution (Nick Martin from center to left guard, Christian Lombard from left guard to right tackle, Scott Elmer from right tackle to right guard).

Then, in the regular season finale, Lombard went down with a career-ending back injury and now-fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey finished the game against USC and started against Rutgers.

That brings this case study to 2013. The irony here is the 2013 unit was truly a special offensive line. It gave up only eight sacks, the second-fewest in the country. It featured four future NFL Draft picks, including two first-rounders in Zach Martin and Ronnie Stanley at the left and right tackle positions, respectively. Those two were also the only two linemen to get through the entire 13-game slate.

Lombard needed back surgery after seven games, bringing in Elmer at right guard. Before the Navy game two weeks later, future third-round draft pick Chris Watt’s knee felt too unstable to trust due to injury, giving Hanratty the start at left guard, where he would start again in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers when Watt’s season was deemed finished. Future second-round draft pick Nick Martin suffered a knee injury in the regular season’s penultimate contest, leading to two starts for Hegarty.

In all, eight different offensive linemen started multiple games for Notre Dame in 2013.

If that rash of injuries were to befall the Irish in 2017, the absence of Hoge would be distinct, and the loss of Boudreaux would be noticed. Otherwise, the greatest impact of those two transfers will be the scholarships they make available to the recruiting class of 2018.

QUICK NOTE ON KNUTE ROCKNE NUMBERS
In light of Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ unexpected retirement this week, it was noted he is No. 14 on the list of winningest FBS coaches by percentage with a minimum of 10 seasons. Naturally, Notre Dame legend Knute Rockne remains atop the list with a record of 105-12-5 and a winning percentage of .881.

Two spots down and seemingly only three one-hundredths of a percentage point away sits Urban Meyer. That gap is far greater than one may realize … Meyer would need to win his next 50 consecutive games to simply match Rockne’s percentage. Such a streak would actually match Rockne exactly, no matter how many decimal points checked.

Not to underestimate Urban Meyer, of all people, but 50-0 seems rather unlikely.

With that, this posted at 4 p.m. on a Friday. You’re not still reading, are you?