As spring progresses, the conversation around Notre Dame’s offensive line will turn to the four early-enrolled freshmen. Their arrival should, in time, provide genuine depth up front and accelerated development for the next few years, but given the veterans the Irish return, that praise will live only until the season arrives. At that point, the upperclassmen will demand any and all attention.
Notre Dame will trot out four returning starters at Louisville on Labor Day, totalling 55 career starts among them, 45 of which came last year. The smallest of that quartet? Two-year starting right tackle Robert Hainsey (pictured above) at 6-foot-5, 298 pounds. The sole addition to the starting unit, rising sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, is the only other line starter listed at less than 6-foot-6, at the same height as Hainsey and two pounds heavier.
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Size up front may not be the only quality necessary to be an imposing line — clearly, it isn’t, otherwise sumo wrestlers would proliferate the select ranks of five-star recruits — but it does not hurt the cause by any means.
“We are 6’4”-plus across the board,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said a week ago. “We look like a big, powerful offensive line, the way I want it to be.”
Getting off the bus with a certain image is one thing. Development beyond that remains necessary, though, especially as Notre Dame loses two NFL-bound offensive linemen for the second year in a row. That is where Hainsey maintaining his upward trend for a third spring, and then third season, could prove vital. Improving upon his performance last season would indicate Hainsey nears dominance.
“Going through all our cut-ups that we do after the season, a player from our first game to our last game, [Hainsey] might have been our best player on offense,” Long said. “Just the way he executed game-in and game-out. The level of consistency he played with was outstanding. He’s a confident young man, too. You can see that in the way he’s leading.”
If Hainsey is leading, and every aspect of his presentation supports that conclusion, he is stepping into the hole left by those aforementioned soon-to-be NFL players. Another step forward will be necessary, though. Part of the wonder of the Quenton Nelson/Mike McGlinchey and Sam Mustipher/Alex Bars pairings were their hand-in-hand roles along the line. Given Hainsey is dug in at right tackle, the obvious instinct is to look to rising senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, entering his second season at the position and third as a starter.
At 6-foot-6, Kraemer has long been physically imposing, but he may not have been as fleet of foot as Long prefers from his guards. Think of Nelson or Bars pulling to the outside of the line to lead the way on a run play. Getting and staying ahead of the running back takes timing and quickness.
“He had to move better,” Long said. “I like to pull our guys, and we were not very good last year, and we’re not going to lose that part of our offense. If he wanted to be a guy, he needed to do it. He can pull and pull with power.”
In the fall, Kraemer was listed at 316 pounds. The spring roster puts him at 319. Yet, Long credited Kraemer for losing weight over the last two-plus months. Whether that is a roster typo or a broader description of an overall body change, the sentiment suggests a needed and wanted adjustment, one that could have as much a psychological effect as a physical one.
“You just see a much more confident guy out there,” Long said. “He’s stronger, another offseason in the weight room, the way he’s bouncing around out there, he’s way better than he was.”
The parallel developments on the left side of the line will be more typical to those often seen between the first year starting and the second. Even if rising junior Aaron Banks started only six games last season, the expectation is he reach the levels Hainsey and Kraemer did in 2018, especially considering their 2017 rotation essentially equaled half a season of playing time each in their first year, as well.
In other words, aggressive play, occasionally tentative due to inexperience, and thus allowing for the occasional mistake.
“Banks doesn’t have a problem with confidence,” Long said. “He gets going. He makes a mistake — it’s sorry coach — but he’s going to get after somebody, too. It’s just getting him back out there, he’s moving around way better now. He’s a big, powerful man that loves to play.”
Rising senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg fits those second-year starter possibilities, as well, in particular the tentativeness. It was visible throughout 2018 and will be the greatest hurdle to overcome if he really is to become the next name in the line of standout left tackles spanning the length of head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.
“[Eichenberg] was too tentative at times last year,” Long said. “Because he’s another conscientious kid who doesn’t want to make a mistake. You have to go. This is your second year to start. Let’s have a legit, big-time left tackle with your size and ability. We need to get better movement on the left side, it can’t just be the right.”
Being it remains the springtime, Long’s words all end with a positive takeaway. To some degree, that makes his pointed criticisms stand out — Kraemer’s quickness, Banks’ mistakes, Eichenberg’s tentativeness — the items not to lose sight of despite the shine of other, new arrivals.