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With two captains gone, only natural another pops up on Notre Dame’s offensive line

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Notre Dame’s offensive line was always going to be a question mark this spring. That is the natural result of losing two first-round draft picks, not to mention the position coach as well, to the NFL. When Irish head coach Brian Kelly discussed the line before the first practice of spring, he immediately acknowledged how many possibilities new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn may need to dabble with to find the right variation.

“It’s going to be an extremely competitive situation, one that I’m kind of looking forward to,” Kelly said Monday. “I’m just looking at my roster here, and there are probably four or five different combinations that we could run out there at the offensive line. You’re going to see a lot of them in the spring.”

Undoubtedly, every one of those combinations included fifth-year Sam Mustipher at center (No. 53 above), now with an additional ‘C’ to describe him as one of the three newly-elected captains. Mustipher will be the only piece of the line starting at the same position for the third-consecutive year, a la those first-round draft picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey at left guard and left tackle, respectively.

When Mustipher first took over the snapping duties in 2016, he knew he had Nelson and McGlinchey taking care of business to his left. It did not take bold projections to expect the two could find the success they eventually did, becoming consensus All-Americans and now biding their time until the NFL draft. Compared to Mustipher, Nelson and McGlinchey were experienced veterans, yet they turned to him before each snap waiting for his direction. At first, Mustipher found that “weird,” taking a season to grow into the role at center.

“Offensive line, there are obviously leaders, but we have to be one set of eyes,” he said Tuesday. “Everybody plays their own role within it, and it’s going to start with the center.”

Off the field, Nelson and McGlinchey were the unquestioned leaders of the offensive line, not inherently turning to Mustipher. With their departures, he was already expected to step into that role before adding the captainship. At least in the offensive line meetings, Mustipher will have another three-year starter alongside him in Alex Bars, though it will need to be seen where Bars lines up as a starter this year.

“It’s definitely a different feel in the room … but the standard of excellence and the standard of tradition of offensive line play here at Notre Dame is going to stay the same,” Mustipher said. “The guys understand that, they work hard. … It will always be that way as long as we’re here, and we understand that.”

As a captain, Mustipher will draw from lessons from others beside Nelson and McGlinchey, namely former Irish linebacker Nyles Morgan and former walk-on receiver Austin Webster. Last spring, Morgan led Mustipher’s SWAT unit, with Webster landing the center in the summer. In both instances, Mustipher was considered the second-in-command.

“Just learning from them, I learned how to lead a group,” Mustipher said. “… Normally I felt I could take care of most tasks.”

In the end, Mustipher’s success in 2018 will be most-gauged by how he handles the task of leading the still-fluctuating offensive line. If Notre Dame struggles as a whole, that will be put on the coaching staff’s shoulders. If the offense never finds a groove, that will likely be laid at the quarterback’s feet. If the offensive line does not maintain the standard set by Nelson and McGlinchey, it will start with the center, just as Mustipher said.

Some educated guesses as to Kelly’s ‘four or five different combinations’
Kelly made it clear rising sophomore Robert Hainsey will get the first chance at left tackle, describing him as “one of our more effective technicians at that position.” Combining that likelihood with Mustipher at center and the certainty of Bars starting, the offensive line possibilities begin to take focus.

Kelly also said rising junior Tommy Kraemer and rising sophomore Josh Lugg would cross-train at both guard and tackle this spring. With that in mind, the four or five most obvious possibilities are, from left to right:

Hainsey — Lugg — Mustipher — Bars — Kraemer (also reportedly what the first unit looked like during Tuesday’s practice)
Hainsey — Kraemer — Mustipher — Bars — Lugg
Hainsey — Lugg — Mustipher — Kraemer — Bars
Hainsey — Kraemer — Mustipher — Lugg — Bars
Hainsey — Bars — Mustipher — Kraemer — Lugg

As a reminder: Bars started at right tackle in 2016 before moving to right guard in 2017 with Kraemer and Hainsey splitting the duties at right tackle.

These possibilities again begin to grow exponentially when factoring in the likes of rising junior Liam Eichenberg and rising sophomore Aaron Banks, both likely tackles, or rising senior Trevor Ruhland, a guard possibility. It would not be a surprise for any or all of them to force his/their way into these arrangements.