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From weak link to game ball: Notre Dame’s offensive line continues to improve

| Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Before they even stepped foot on the field as a collective unit, the Notre Dame offensive line was regarded as one of the team’s weak links. Starting in the spring, all eyes were on the group that sought to replace the majority of its members from, including NFL draftees Liam Eichenberg, Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey.

The season did not start off well for the offensive line, as defenses plowed through their formation with little resistance. With a largely immobile quarterback in graduate student Jack Coan (although after a 21-yard rushing touchdown run against UNC, this definition may need to change a little), protecting the pocket was of the utmost importance. However, there never seemed to be a pocket for Coan to utilize, as the protection was dismantled within moments of the snap.

The offensive line has now gone from the most questionable part of the team to recipients of the game ball on Saturday. The unit posted a solid performance, allowing Coan to contribute in both the pass and rush game. A Coan rushing touchdown and a 91-yard touchdown scamper from junior running back Kyren Williams would have been largely impossible without the line’s contribution.

Heading into the matchup against the Tar Heels, head coach Brian Kelly was more optimistic about their performance, as he saw the group start to come together against archrival USC.

“I think what I was most pleased with is, first of all, you’re gaining some continuity on the offensive line, where essentially that left side is working together now, which helps the entire group [of] five working together,” Kelly said.

He was most impressed with the line’s ability to shift gears, especially after the Trojans came out in a 3-5-3 formation.

 “That’s a lot of identification. That’s a lot of communication. It’s a lot of work upfront,” Kelly said. “I thought the adjustments that they made in-game were really outstanding. They picked up things as the game went on. There are some things that we’ll need to clean up, but I think that that’s what stands out to me more than anything else is their ability to make the in-game adjustments, and work really well together and the communication was outstanding.”

The line used natural instincts to make adjustments, which indicates a level of comfort with their position. Coan touched on the idea of focusing on one’s job during the game, and this mentality aided the offensive line in their performance against the Tar Heels.

“We’ve just got to continue to execute,” Coan said. “No matter what the score is, in every single game, every time we touch a field, we want to go down and score points. And we just try to do our jobs and just keep focus.”

Kelly noted that the team is improving week by week, and the offensive line is a large contributor. Kelly said he thought there was a good balance on offense and defense against UNC, and that “it’s an improving football team.”

Speaking of improvements, the offensive line’s development allowed the offense to expand its playbook and experiment with what works best for the unit. Kelly mentioned this advancement in his post-game assessment.

“The performance was as good as we’ve had offensively in terms of run-pass,” Kelly said. “We opened up some things by getting the ball out on the perimeter.  They were loading the box, and that really helped.  Those were an extension of our run game, and it really helped open things up for us and give us the balance.”

With the offensive line no longer being much cause for concern, the team can continue to evolve into a more effective squad. The matchup against UNC was the first chapter of this new team dynamic, with the group of linemen having the potential to be the answer to Notre Dame’s remaining offensive questions.

“We had not had those answers before,” Kelly said. “Spreading the formations, getting the ball out on the perimeter, throwing the ball in the seams and then allowing that to set up runs were some of the answers that Tommy was finding while they were trying to take something away.”

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