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Where Notre Dame was, is, and what it needs vs. Clemson: Offensive line

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All the ingredients were there for Notre Dame to have a poor offensive line this season, at least relatively speaking. Only so much can be expected when two All-Americans hear their names called in the first nine picks of the NFL draft, when an esteemed position coach also heads to the NFL and when a presumptive All-American tears his ACL in the first half of the season.

Yet, this Irish line has been good enough to support this unbeaten push to the Playoff, though by doing so, the line’s greatest challenge now awaits.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The loss of fifth-year left tackle Alex Bars cannot be overstated. The Irish line was not playing excellently through the season’s first third, but it was playing no worse than satisfactorily and its concerns were limited. The four sacks allowed against Ball State were as much a symptom of a questionable offensive game plan and its execution than they were a sign junior right guard Tommy Kraemer was not going to work out as a full-time starter.

The solid core of Bars and fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, an eventual All-American in his own right, made it easier for Notre Dame to compensate elsewhere. Entering the year, that qualification was expected to apply to junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, but with Bars at his side, he wrought no worry. Instead it was Kraemer and to a lesser extent sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey.

Getting beaten by Michigan’s ends is hardly a fault; few lines in the country could conceivably slow down both Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. No other threats of that level lingered on the Irish schedule. Planting a running back or tight end to help out against singular dangers — Florida State junior end Brian Burns comes to mind — would be the preferred strategy proven time and time again a year ago. But then Bars got rolled up on against Stanford.

In retrospect, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly may have revealed the awaiting issues when discussing Bars’ injury just the day after it occurred. Kelly wanted to offer nothing but praise of senior Trevor Ruhland, but the differences between him and Bars were too stark to leave unmentioned.

“We don’t have to alter our game plan or calls when Trevor’s in,” Kelly said. “He’s very reliable.

“He doesn’t have the size, necessarily, as Alex does, but he brings some other strengths to the position. … He’s a really solid player.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Thus the one spot of mild concern became two, one on each side of the line, otherwise known as one too many to patch with a running back or tight end while still maintaining the structural integrity of Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme.

Ruhland played well, but he was also needed to shore up right guard for Kraemer. Perhaps it is the workload, maybe he needs time on the sidelines to think through what he is seeing, who knows — Kraemer was not quite handling his first season as a full-time starter. So Notre Dame moved Ruhland over to a timeshare at right guard while promoting sophomore Aaron Banks into the starting lineup at left guard coming out of the October off week.

“[Banks has] been emerging over a period of time,” Kelly said. “Certainly when [Bars] went down, it created more of a focus on the position itself. Tying to duplicate that kind of size and quickness that Alex has is very difficult.

“We felt like Aaron has accelerated his game to the point where we feel comfortable starting him at the left guard position. Still have a lot of confidence in Ruhland and Kraemer … but we think our best chance at playing at the level that we need to puts a 6-5, 325-pound lineman that pass protects very well, moves his feet very well, and plays with explosiveness — now gives us two really big, physical, athletic players on the left side.”

Sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey and the Notre Dame offensive line allowed only 19 sacks this season. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Banks has largely delivered. Some credit there should probably go to Eichenberg who has handled his tasks as a first-year starter stepping into a position manned by three straight top-20 NFL draftees across the last eight years. The concerns remain the patchwork right guard spot of primarily Kraemer and some Ruhland, and a bit revolving around Hainsey in the run game, his handful of false starts this season overblown in their practical effect.

Gauging the line’s effectiveness in the ground game is difficult, given the up-and-down production of late. Each of the following stats is true, once again proving how easily statistics can be manipulated to fit any storyline:

— The Irish averaged 200 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) this season, the third-highest mark of Kelly’s nine years at Notre Dame, trailing only last year’s prolific attack and 2015’s high-powered offense.
— The Irish averaged 209.4 rushing yards per game (sacks adjusted) since inserting Banks into the starting lineup following the off week.
— If removing a 365-yard explosion against an apathetic Florida State defense, that latter figure drops to 170.5.
— Three of the five games in question were far below the 200 mark, averaging 142.5 yards (still sacks adjusted), and even that is inflated by some garbage time breakaways against Syracuse.

Notre Dame still runs the ball whenever Long wants to. The most flexible of selections results in 34.3 attempts per game in those three games of struggles (at Northwestern, vs. Syracuse, at USC), hardly giving up on the ground attack. It just is not breaking defenses that way, and some of that lackluster production comes from the offensive line not getting inherent push.

WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Its best performance of the year.

There is an alternate universe where Bars does not get hurt, plays left tackle, and Quenton Nelson returned for a fifth season. The left side of that line against this Tigers defense would have triggered exultations from football purists best left undescribed. Alas, this is not that universe. The Irish have not enjoyed such fortune; only Clemson has.

By any measure, this opposing defensive front is better than any Notre Dame has faced to date.

“They have all the pieces,” Kelly said earlier this month. “They have the long, athletic edge player with the physical two-gap inside player. They don’t have just the one kind of player that most defensive lines have, a one-dimensional player. They have them across the board. … There’s no weakness across the front four.

“So you can’t pick a particular guy and say, we’re going to run at him or we’re going to run away from or we’re going to slide the protection to him. If we slide it over here and we leave him one-on-one, that’s a problem. … If there’s a one-on-one across the board, they are all problems. That’s what makes it difficult.”

Ranking the top players across the country in a neat top 50 is an exercise for debate and clicks, but there is still a reason ESPN puts three Tigers defensive linemen in its top 12. They are that good.

Of the defenses the Irish played since turning to Banks, only Northwestern (No. 19) and Florida State (No. 30) hold pertinent rush defense rankings by advanced metrics. The former held Notre Dame to 121 yards on 40 carries, while the latter gave up 365 yards on 50 rushes.

There is a big jump from No. 30 to No. 1, bigger than 29 spots indicate, but if the Irish can run for 200 yards, they would be the first ones to do so against Clemson since the 2016 national championship game. The Tigers still won that, 35-31, despite giving up 221 rushing yards to Alabama, but it took every ounce of offensive production Clemson could muster to outpace the Tide.

As much as keeping junior quarterback Ian Book upright and only mildly hassled, the offensive line’s Dec. 29 performance will be measured by the push it gets on running plays. Long is going to call them regardless.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Returning four starters next year will not be a bad spot to start, though losing Mustipher is a blow not to be overlooked. A three-year starter at center, he handled protection calls without any second-guessing. Whether it is Ruhland, Hainsey or an underclassmen who steps in for him, there will be a learning curve in that regard.