Make no mistake about it. Alex Bars wanted to be a Notre Dame captain. Moving to left guard from right guard to provide some veteran guidance to first-year starter junior Liam Eichenberg at left tackle was a natural move, one that will take some adjustments, but it was not the change in duties Bars sought all spring.
When Irish head coach Brian Kelly called in the team to show a hype video before last weekend’s Blue-Gold Game, the more meaningful moment came after he called up the three already-established captains, fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher. Fitting with the theme of fifth-years, Bars soon joined them thanks to a team-wide vote.
“It’s just an unbelievable honor and I don’t think you can get more special than being the captain for Notre Dame football,” Bars said after the final spring practice. “… I’m very excited. It’s not what’s on your chest, it’s what’s in it. I’m going to continue to lead and push the guys and push myself.”
Bars and Mustipher watched a couple captains closely last season, lining up alongside Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson. Even before 2017, the two All-Americans left a mark on Bars.
“Unbelievable examples,” he said simply. “… Having them the last two, three, four years was just awesome, really special to me.
“… It speaks to the culture that we uphold in the offensive line room. We set the standard very high as far as how we carry ourselves. In a way, I think people naturally look to us for guidelines to how they should go about doing their own work and doing their own job.”
Like McGlinchey and Nelson, Bars and Mustipher were always going to line up next to each other in 2018. The expectation over the winter and through the first two-thirds of spring was Mustipher would have Bars on his right side, at right guard, just like last season. When Eichenberg emerged at left tackle, though, Kelly and Irish offensive line coach Jeff Quinn moved Bars to left guard.
Bars did not expect the move, but it has not fazed him. He will simply spend the summer flipping his habits, learning different angles and steps, altering hand rhythms to meet the exact opposite contact points.
Well, that and continuing the habits he focused on this spring which led to being named a captain.
“I was more involved in coaching [my teammates] and making sure they come in and do the extra work necessary to master their technique, watch extra film, do extra drills,” Bars said. “… We had errors today that we can clean up, just some sloppy technique that comes with every practice, every spring game.
“We’ll get to work on that. We’ll clean it up.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS/IS AT OFFENSIVE LINE:
Losing two top-10 NFL draft picks leaves quite a hole. There is no reason to sugarcoat that. With McGlinchey and Nelson elsewhere, the question entering the spring focused on the left side of the line. The number of possibilities ranged from 2017’s two starters at right tackle in sophomore Robert Hainsey and junior Tommy Kraemer to high-on-potential junior Liam Eichenberg and a number of unknowns in sophomores Josh Lugg, Aaron Banks and Dillan Gibbons.
Those questions were quickly resolved with Eichenberg forcing his way into left tackle, moving Hainsey back to right tackle. That move also flipped Kraemer to right guard from left guard, the effect of placing Bars’ two years of starting experience next to Eichenberg in his debut.
The Irish backups remain a myriad of questions. For one thing, they are not straight-forward. For example, if Mustipher were to suffer a major injury, Bars would likely move to center. The two-deep depth chart may list senior Trevor Ruhland as the backup at center, but that role would be more a theoretical position than a practical one. Ruhland could emerge as a guard possibility, though.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
Four more freshmen will enter that backup mix this summer: John Dirksen, Cole Mabry, Luke Jones and Jarrett Patterson. Very rarely does Kelly consider a freshman as a starting offensive lineman, hence much of the surprise when Hainsey stepped in against Temple to open 2017. It should be noted: Neither McGlinchey nor Nelson managed the accomplishment. None of the incoming four freshmen should be expected to, either.