Irish offensive line aims to replicate success
Joe Everett | Friday, August 24, 2018
After a disastrous 2016 campaign, the 2017 turnaround started up front in the trenches for Notre Dame.
Arguably the majority of Notre Dame’s success last season could be attributed to the dedicated drive and tenacity of its offensive line play. The group that won the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line in the country controlled the line of scrimmage in almost every game, giving senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush all kinds of time and perhaps most evidently opening up huge holes for Josh Adams and the stable of Irish running backs to run through.
The key question this season is one of stability. Can the Irish maintain a similar level of success at the offensive line, even after losing coach Harry Heistand to the Chicago Bears and Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL Draft, respectively? Returning for the Irish are fifth-year senior captain and center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year senior captain and left guard Alex Bars, as well as junior Tommy Kraemer and sophomore Robert Hainsey, who split time at right tackle last year.
In order to replace the hole created on the left side of the line without Nelson and McGlinchey, players have had to shuffle positions, including Bars shifting over from right guard (his position last year) to left guard to replace Nelson. Mustipher will continue to anchor the line at center, while Kraemer will slide over to right guard to make room for Hainsey at right tackle full-time. Finally, junior Liam Eichenberg has been tabbed as the man ready to take over McGlinchey’s spot at left tackle, a responsibility that head coach Brian Kelly says needs to come with ever-increasing confidence from the junior.
“Yeah, so Liam, you know, we all kind of sense that he had the physical ability to do it,” Kelly said Aug. 15. “It’s confidence, right; he’s in there every day against two dynamic pass rushers, guys that can play at a high level, and so I think every day what he gets is confidence in his ability to play left tackle at Notre Dame. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Now, certainly [offensive line coach Jeff] Quinn is working on technique and recognition and fronts and things of that nature. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just about feeling good every day, but confidence probably would be No. 1.”
With essentially four returnees from last year’s offensive line, the Irish have plenty of reason to be confidant in their offensive line play, especially in the middle. Mustipher was named to the 2018 Rimington Trophy Spring Watch List — the award given annually to the most outstanding collegiate center.
“I can’t speak on how important he is,” Wimbush said of the captain. “Leading the guys up front, being a fifth-year guy, being that vocal guy up front, understanding where pressures are coming from, helping me out sometimes, so I think he’s done a great job of putting the five guys up front in the right position and giving me time. That’s the biggest thing — giving me time to go make a play.”
Although this re-made offensive line has been improving throughout fall camp in preparation for the 2018 campaign, it will perhaps face its stiffest test against Michigan in the season opener. The Wolverines return 36 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks, and feature stars such as junior defensive lineman Rashan Gary and fifth-year senior Chase Winovich, as well as up-and-coming defensive tackles Michael Dwumfour and Aubrey Solomon. While Michigan will be the first of several elite defensive lines that the Irish will face throughout the season, Wimbush is confident in his five teammates up front and the progress they’ve made.
“I think those guys are gritty, I think they’ve come along,” Wimbush said. “I think those guys have done a great job all fall camp of locking in and getting their job done. I think Liam Eichenberg and all those guys, Tommy Kraemer, [Robert] Hainsey, [Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars] — and even some of the freshmen guys — they all look great. They’re gritty, they fight, and that’s going to happen at practice going up against the defensive linemen and I like that. I like those guys getting dirty, ‘down in the slums,’ they call it, so I think those guys have done a great job of putting themselves in the best position, with me helping them and communicating with them, to where they’re going to be able to succeed.”