Opposing a pair first-team All-Big Ten defensive ends, the remains of the best offensive line in the country last year now need to break in a first-time starter at left tackle and a right tackle stepping into twice the role he held previously.
Flip possession and find a reshuffled offensive line facing a defensive front with more depth than any point in recent history.
As always, when No. 12 Notre Dame hosts No. 14 Michigan on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBC), much of the result will be determined in the trenches. In this case, these two matchups are studies in strength vs. flawed strength and strength vs. flawed strength; both balances tilt toward the defense.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly specifically highlighted Wolverines junior defensive end Rashan Gary on Tuesday before catching himself and lumping Gary in with the defensive line as a whole.
“He’s certainly not the only one,” Kelly said. “He’s complemented quite well in a number of areas on the defensive line, [by senior end Chase Winovich], but it doesn’t end there. … I’ve got more notes on their defensive line than any group that I’ve had other than maybe North Carolina State last year (and) Georgia. Those three are groups of defensive linemen that rate out at a high level.”
If anyone does not remember, the Bulldogs’ front included linebacker/ends Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, first- and second-round NFL draft picks this spring, respectively. They each recorded a sack against Notre Dame, two of Georgia’s three sacks total and nine tackles for loss. Carter also forced two fumbles. That defensive front played a pivotal role in Georgia’s 20-19 victory, and it was going against an offensive line with two top-10 draft picks that would eventually win the Joe Moore Award.
Yet, the Bulldogs did not even bring the best defensive lineman the Irish faced in 2017. That was North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb, the No. 5 overall draft pick, and the player Kelly loosely compared Gary to. Though Notre Dame trounced the Wolfpack, Chubb still managed eight tackles with three for loss including one sack.
How the Irish mitigate Michigan’s pass rush will play a crucial role in senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush succeeding early and building the confidence needed to pick apart what may be the nation’s best defense. To do so, Notre Dame will turn to junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg (first genuine playing time) and sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey (first game playing every series, possibly not 100 percent healthy).
“Liam’s a ferocious, physical player, but he’s going to be challenged over there,” Kelly said. “There’s no question. He’s playing against one of the best players in the country. He’s got to know that there’s going to be some times that he’s going to struggle, and that we’ve got his back.”
Lending additional blocking aid to Hainsey or Tommy Kraemer, working at right tackle last year but now at right guard, was a big piece of how the Irish survived the likes of Boston College’s Harold Landry and Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor last season. Both lined up primarily against Hainsey and Kraemer rather than face fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. Combined, Landry and Ejiofor made three tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage. That strategy may now shift to the left side of the line.
“It’s our job to help [Eichenberg] out at times and get a tight end over there, get a back over there,” Kelly said. “… Sometimes it’s more about how we support him more so than him worrying about you got one of the best players in the country over there.”
The Wolverines may need to take a similar approach to give time to transfer quarterback Shea Patterson in his first moments in maize-and-blue. Senior left tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty started seven games in 2017 … at right tackle. Junior right tackle Jon Runyan started one game. They now face a quartet of Irish defensive ends poised to break out: juniors Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara on one side and classmates Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji on the other.
Michigan will not be able to divert resources from the interior of its line, given Notre Dame’s depth at tackle, as well, led by senior Jerry Tillery.
“This will be the deepest defensive line that I’ve had at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We can play eight on the defensive line without feeling as though we have to cover somebody up.”
Seven of those eight saw playing time last season, with the exception being Ogundeji, but Tillery and tackle Jonathan Bonner (pictured at top) had to play a disproportionate number of snaps. Their backups were freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. The newcomers played better than ever expected, but their fitness was still nowhere near the level needed to play 20-30 or even 40 snaps per game, as would be ideal.
The additional year in a collegiate strength and conditioning program should have the now-sophomores at that point, just as it has added power to Ogundeji’s lanky frame.
“We can stay after you for four quarters when [we] can go eight deep,” Kelly said. “There’s not going to be a drop off in terms of somebody has to play 60 or 70 snaps. That’s where you’ll ultimately see the biggest difference. …
“When somebody can be fresh and keep getting after somebody, it changes the way that person looks in the third and fourth quarter. This will be the deepest group that we have put out there and we expect it to have great production for us.”
Only briefly in his eight years at Notre Dame has Kelly been able to claim defensive lines with these kinds of expectations. Most notably, a strong 2011 led to a transcendent 2012.
2011: 25 sacks, 20.7 points allowed per game, 139 rushing yards allowed per game, 345 total yards allowed per game.
2012: 34 sacks, 12.8 points allowed per game, 106 rushing yards allowed per game, 305 total yards allowed per game.
By Kelly’s own admission, this line does not have anyone the talent level of a Stephon Tuitt, who had 12 sacks in that run to the national championship game. However, it has more depth. Only six linemen genuinely contributed along the defensive front in 2012. When Kelly says the Irish currently are eight deep, that does not include any possible freshmen surprises.
With that in mind, consider last year’s stats in comparison to the two lines above.
2017: 24 sacks, 21.5 points allowed per game, 154 rushing yards allowed per game, 369 total yards allowed per game.
If Notre Dame is to make a similar leap, it will start against Michigan and its settling-in tackles. The Wolverines, it just so happens, have the exact same idea.