Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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32 APRIL 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED H eading into spring practice, Notre Dame was once again looking to establish its of- fensive line as a dominant group. The Irish were fueled to a 10-3 season in 2015, which ended with a berth to the Fiesta Bowl, by a high-octane offense that set a school record for yards per play (7.0) and set a modern program record for yards per rush (5.63). The line was expected to be the driving force behind an- other explosive offense in 2016, but it never materialized. Incon- sistent play plagued the entire unit, and the line never lived up to expectations. Instead of going to the NFL, fifth-year senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson have re- turned to Notre Dame, and the ballyhooed but inexperienced offensive line of 2016 is now a more veteran group. Notre Dame is hoping that once again the line can carry the offense to great heights. In order for that to happen, five events must occur. 1. McGlinchey Needs To Bounce Back: Pro Football Fo- cus graded McGlinchey as the na- tion's No. 1 right tackle in 2015, but after moving over to the left side he took a step back. There were plenty of positive mo- ments, but McGlinchey wasn't as powerful or as dominant as he was in 2015. He did not look comfortable on the left side of the line and his tech- nique faltered, and an overall lack of focus was one reason behind a team- leading nine false start penalties. McGlinchey was still projected by some to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but instead he chose to return for his final season in hopes of getting back on track under the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, one of the nation's top line coaches. If he can become the player he is capable of being, McGlinchey will do what Notre Dame's last two left tackles — Zack Martin (2013) and Ronnie Stanley (2015) — did, which is finish as one of the nation's premier players at his position. 2. Nelson Needs To Keep On Keeping On: Notre Dame's best line- man last season was Nelson, who was often dominant at left guard. Like the rest of his position mates, he battled to play at his peak level on a consistent basis, but he was still quite good. Heading into his final season, Nel- son must continue to shore up his technique and learn to play under control a bit better. If he can, he could very well emerge as the top guard in the country. If points one and two do happen, Notre Dame will have the best one- two punch in the land. 3. Breakout Season From Bars: There were times in 2016 when right tackle Alex Bars showed the elite tal- ent that made head coach Brian Kelly call him one of the best linemen he had coached in 25 years. Unfortu- nately, those plays were sandwiched between plays when Bars looked like he lacked the strength and power to be an elite college offensive tackle. Arguably no player on the roster will be better served by the arrival of strength coach Matt Balis. Bars needs to re- shape his body and dramati- cally improve his strength, es- pecially his lower body. Being more consistent with his technique is also a must, but the senior has all the tools. If he can put it all together, he could have a true breakout season, whether he stays at right tackle or if he slides inside, depending on who the fifth starter turns out to be. 4. Improvements Needed Up The Middle: Senior Sam Mustipher will battle junior Tristen Hoge for the starting center position. Both are gifted, although they have different strengths. Whoever wins the job, Notre Dame needs better play up the middle. Mustipher must improve his snap consis- tency and learn to work his feet better, while Hoge must get bet- ter at moving people. Both have the capability of so- lidifying the inside of the line, but someone has to seize the spot and get the job done. 5. Smooth Transition For The Fifth Starter: A pair of ultra-talented sophomores are in competition to be the unit's fifth starter. Tommy Kraemer is a powerful run blocker that could start at right guard or tackle, while Liam Eichenberg is an exceptional edge player who could very well be in line to become Notre Dame's next great tackle. If one of those two young players is ready, they could help form possi- bly the best line of Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame. Being surrounded by veterans with at least one full season as a starter in the bank should help make for a smooth transition for either of those two talented blockers. ✦ Resurgence Needed Up Front CHALK TALK BRYAN DRISKELL Bryan Driskell has been a football analyst for Blue & Gold Illustrated since April 2015. He can be reached at bdriskell@blueandgold.com. A breakout season from talented right tackle Alex Bars is one key to Notre Dame's line getting back on track. PHOTO BY RICK KIMBALL

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