Offensive line’s experience anchors squad
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, April 21, 2017
Over the course of their 4-8 2016 season, the Irish had their fair share of woes, with the offensive line providing some of the more prominent ones. This season, however, the line, led by four returning members, is prepared to be one of the biggest factors in a total Irish turnaround.
Notre Dame boasts both talent and experience across the line, with graduate student and two-time captain Mike McGlinchey returning to give playing left tackle a second chance after switching sides of the field last season. Senior and second year starter Quenton Nelson at left guard, senior and veteran Sam Mustipher at center and senior Alex Bars prepared to continue at right guard. The only question mark comes at right tackle, as the competition between sophomores Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer has been a talking point throughout the spring.
“[Eichenberg and Kraemer are] both big fighters and the want to do what’s right is huge in both of them,” McGlinchey said of the competition. “Both of them have a great knack for the game of football; they’re both very, very competitive guys. They want it bad and the things that they’ve got to clean up they know they’ve got to clean up … but they’re going to be great players here in the future.”
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said the decision on which of the sophomores will earn the starting job does not need to be finalized until the fall, mainly because the experience at the other positions will only help whoever the newcomer is progress quickly.
The offensive line’s struggles last year stemmed from a variety of places, which manifested most notably in a handful of poor snaps from Mustipher, especially in crucial situations against North Carolina State and Stanford. Hiestand assured that this would not continue to be an issue this season.
“First of all, you’re talking about a very small number of plays that Sam really fouled up,” Hiestand said. “The timing of them weren’t great, but you’re not talking about a total fall apart, can’t function with the guy. That was part of it, just pointing out that this is easily fixed, and he believed that and he did it and Coach Kelly stuck with him, and so, as bad as all that was, we could put them on a clip of about five plays and we had about 550 that are decent.
“So, we just work from there and he’s an awesome young man and he’s got great personal pride and the last thing he needed was anybody to pile on him and we worked through it, because he can do it. It wasn’t like he couldn’t do it, he just had a couple bad stretches there and we worked through it.”
Another problem the Irish ran into last season was McGlinchey, who drew flags for jumping offsides throughout the season. McGlinchey himself acknowledged that was the biggest thing he needed to work on, and Hiestand attributed McGlinchey’s tendency to flinch last season to his desire to make sure everyone on the line was prepared to execute perfectly, even to the point that he forgot about himself.
“Just having an incredible desire and determination to do well and to help others do well, so Mike’s big thing was he was always trying get everything to work and he’d kind of forget about himself sometimes,” Hiestand said. “It wasn’t as much [switching to the left side] as trying to do too much, trying to make sure everybody else is squared away, and then, boom, he pops early. He’s been much better with that this spring and that won’t be an issue down the road and it was a product of that.”
Both McGlinchey and Nelson made the decision to return to Notre Dame this season in part due to the fact that they felt they had unfinished business after last season’s woes. Having two offensive linemen back who were NFL draft material last season will be a major boost to the Irish offense this season.
“I think we saw [the importance of experience] coming into 2015 as well,” McGlinchey said of the experienced offensive line. “Having the four of us come back here and have four pieces to a puzzle that needs five is pretty big. Last year we only came back with [Nelson] and I and one of us was playing a different position. So, it’s definitely a huge advantage for, seeing things through one set of eyes and being a collective unit on offense. And absolutely, experience is everything in this game and having the experience that we do now up front is certainly going to pay dividends in the long run.”
Mustipher added that, with a season of experience as starting center on his resume, there is an added sense of duty to ensure the line is doing everything in its power to help the team function.
“I feel like it’s a responsibility that we know we have and we know we always have to take care of,” Mustipher said. “And there was a responsibility we had last year, regardless of starts or not, we have a responsibility to this team to get our job done and not be the guys that let the team down.”
The offensive line has learned from the mistakes of last season, and has prepared itself to tackle this season with a renewed energy and as a cohesive, experienced unit.
“What I want is for this offensive line to the best in the country and I think we have the players to do that, the mindset to do that and the coach to do that,” Nelson said.