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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s offensive line, a search for a fifth starter

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Despite inheriting a line coming off a Joe Moore Award-winning season as the best offensive line unit in the country and returning four starters, the questions still abound for new Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn. More than who, Quinn must ponder a few versions of where.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, the only certain matching of who to where.
— Fifth-year Alex Bars, who spent 2016 starting at right tackle and 2017 starting at right guard. The latter seems most likely in 2018, but he could conceivably line up anywhere along the line aside from center.
— Rising junior Tommy Kraemer and rising sophomore Robert Hainsey, who split duties at right tackle in 2017.
— Rising junior Liam Eichenberg, long considered half of the pair of heirs apparent at tackle along with Kraemer. That is, until Hainsey’s rapid ascension.
— Rising senior Trevor Ruhland, a career backup thus far who would seem to have the capabilities to start at either guard position.
— Three rising sophomores, none yet committed to a specific position: Josh Lugg, Aaron Banks, Dillan Gibbons.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshmen Luke Jones, Jarrett Patterson, John Dirksen and Cole Mabry.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Quinn must decipher who lines up where among Bars, Kraemer, Hainsey, Eichenberg and Ruhland. Furthermore, any of the three other sophomores could force their way into the conversation, especially when considering the highly-recruited Banks.

For the sake of this positional preview not stretching on interminably, let’s confine an example of possible permutations to only the upperclassmen and Hainsey, while acknowledging both/either Banks and/or Lugg could show up as a starter at guard in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

From left-to-right:
Hainsey — Ruhland — Mustipher — Bars — Kraemer
Hainsey — Kraemer — Mustipher — Bars — Eichenberg
Hainsey — Kraemer — Mustipher — Ruhland — Bars
Kraemer — Ruhland — Mustipher — Bars — Hainsey
Eichenberg —Kraemer — Mustipher — Bars — Hainsey
The list goes on and on and on …

Even when confining the options to five players for four positions, the various arrangements become too many to list. The above five samples have no more than three player-to-position matches overlapping, even including Mustipher always showing up at center.

Biggest (Reader) Question(s):
Will Kraemer spend 2018 at guard or at tackle? He may be personally better suited at guard, but the Irish could be best served with him at tackle, just like they were last season. That determination will be the first step to narrowing the above options.

Ideally, the answer may be guard. Kraemer excels at run blocking, while needing to get every step perfect to be in functional position for handling pass-rushers on the edge. If he can move to guard, Notre Dame can better utilize his strength which is, well, his strength.

But that is only possible if Eichenberg is ready to step in at tackle, or if Kraemer has closed the gap between himself and Bars at guard.

Besides quarterback, what is the next most important position battle to watch? — Taylor G.

Wherever Kraemer lines up in 2018, he would seem a likely starter. His skill set warrants that benefit of the doubt. For that matter, his time on the field in 2017 made it clear he was ahead of Eichenberg, whereas the two were alternating series throughout last spring. With that in mind, the four returning starters should all remain starters.

Thus, who is the fifth offensive line starter? It would be a shock if it came from outside Eichenberg, Ruhland, Lugg and Banks, but it could be any one of the four, or perhaps another year of a combination thereof.

If Kraemer lines up at guard, a tackle position would possibly be available, giving Eichenberg an advantage. Of course, Kraemer might be moving to guard simply as Bars moves back to tackle. If Kraemer or Bars is at tackle, then a guard will be needed, and that competition would likely stretch well into August.

While the Irish desperately need to find a safety or two, that fight for starting time may conclude much quicker, especially if Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was sincere when he said Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman would have started in 2017 if eligible.

The fifth offensive lineman, however, could take longer to sort out, partly because it will not be answered until the Kraemer quandary is deciphered.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Luke Jones
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jarrett Patterson
Notre Dame gets the letters: John Dirksen and Cole Mabry

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions
Tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent
Defensive line, a returning strength
Receivers, now without both St. Brown & Stepherson
Defensive backs, stellar cornerbacks and concerning safeties

As always, further reader questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.