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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.

Leftovers & Links: Brandon Wimbush heads to Central Florida for his final season

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush will continue his career at Central Florida. Wimbush announced his graduate transfer destination Tuesday morning.

“The journey continues on …,” Wimbush wrote on Instagram. “A sincere thank you to Notre Dame for giving me endless opportunities on and off the field. Words truly can not (sic) describe what this incredible University and the PEOPLE mean to me and always will mean to me. I’m truly thankful. Cannot say it enough.

“With that being said, I am excited to announce that UCF has granted me an awesome opportunity to play my last year of collegiate football for their great University.”

Wimbush will enter into a starting opportunity, although an unfortunate one and a competitive one. The late November horrendous knee injury to three-year starter McKenzie Milton will almost-assuredly sideline him through the 2019 season. If not for the injury, Milton would either be starting 2019 for the Knights or headed to the NFL.

In his first year of any action, sophomore Darriel Mack played in 10 games for Central Florida, completing 51 of his 100 pass attempts for 619 yards and three touchdowns, including going 35-of-71 for 526 yards and three scores in the two-plus games Milton missed.

In other words, Mack put up Wimbush-esque numbers, despite Heupel’s high-scoring offense.

Wimbush finishes his Irish career with a 13-3 record as a starter, including four wins during 2018’s unbeaten regular season. After the Notre Dame offense failed to break 24 points in the first three games of the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long turned to Ian Book for a spark, one Book provided and then some.

Wimbush’s role became non-existent after that, aside from a Senior Day start in place of an injured Book, throwing for 130 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 68 yards.

RELATED READING: The quarterback Notre Dame needed, Brandon Wimbush

In the lead-up to the Cotton Bowl, word broke Wimbush would seek a graduate transfer, confirming what had long been obvious. It had been so clear, it did not faze anyone within the Irish locker room.

Mustipher and Co. will now have reason to keep an eye on the Knights in 2019. After going 25-1 in the last two seasons, Central Florida will want to keep the momentum rolling, particularly with Stanford arriving in Orlando on Sept. 14, a week before the Knights head to Pittsburgh. The Knights genuinely entering the College Football Playoff conversation remains unlikely, but topping those two before rolling through the American Athletic Conference would at least start the discussion, especially if a former Irish quarterback headlines the way.

A consensus three-star prospect out of Virginia, Mack held offers from eastern schools in the Big Ten (Maryland), Big 12 (West Virginia) and ACC (Virginia, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh).

Named 2018’s Next Man In, Wimbush finishes his Irish career with 2,606 yards on 193-of-382 passing with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions along with 1,155 rushing yards and 16 additional touchdowns.

AS FOR NOTRE DAME’S QB IN 2019 …
Early Heisman odds came from an online sportsbook Tuesday, betonline.ag. Irish rising senior Ian Book was given 16-to-1 odds, tied for ninth on the listing. Given the names ahead of him, Book’s realistic chances of winning the Heisman Trophy are slim. Only Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa have odds lower than 12-to-1, at 7-to-2 and 4-to-1, respectively.

Then come two Notre Dame opponents — Georgia running back D’Andre Swift and quarterback Jake Fromm, both at 12-to-1. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson checks in at 25-to-1, just ahead of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello at 33-to-1.

If nothing else, Book can count on some early-season hype if the Irish top Swift and Fromm on Sept. 21.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Even the ‘way-too-early’ 2019 polls already respect Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s offensive depth chart entering the 2019 offseason
Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame
Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019
Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

OUTSIDE READING
Brandon Wimbush and UCF are a promising match for a pivotal 2019
The three biggest questions in college football for the 2019 season
2019 NFL draft underclassmen tracker: Who has declared?
Stanford’s Bryce Love ‘on the path to recovery’ from torn ACL
College football’s 100 best games 2018-19

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett