Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2017

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

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Page 26 of 63 JUNE/JULY 2017 27 BY LOU SOMOGYI A t the end of spring drills, maybe the top talking point for Notre Dame on offense was right tackle. Except no one there was permitted to talk. Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were not made available to the media while vying for the one position along the line that needed to be filled. Unlike at receiver, running back and tight end, where reps and snap counts will be divvied up among various fig- ures, plus quarterback, where Brandon Wimbush is the clear starter despite redshirting last season, the right tackle position — and right side of the line in general — remained a tad unsettled. The issue is not about talent. Rather it's game experience and best fit. The 6-6, 313-pound Kraemer is the second-highest ranked offensive line- man recruited in head coach Brian Kelly's eight seasons at Notre Dame (No. 41 overall nationally according to Rivals, with senior Quenton Nel- son's No. 29 in 2014 is the highest). Meanwhile, after extensive film re- view, the 6-6, 294-pound Eichenberg was rated by Blue & Gold Illustrated football analyst Bryan Driskell as the No. 1 overall prospect in Notre Dame's 23-man haul signed in 2016 — with Kraemer No. 3. When asked late last season who among the younger redshirted play- ers had made a mark in practice, Kelly singled out Eichenberg as "a stud." From the first week of spring drills, Kelly described right tackle as a "very competitive situation" that might carry over into the fall — much like quarterback last year. However, in the handful of ses- sions when the media was allowed to watch some, if not all, of practice, Kraemer consistently trotted out with the starting unit. Much of seizing the starting role at right tackle depends on how effective the two are at setting the edge and playing comfortably in space against top pass rushers. Last year, 2015 guard Alex Bars was shifted to right tackle (while Mike McGlinchey moved to left tackle) be- cause he was the next best player on the roster equipped for such a role. With an eagerness by the staff to get either Kraemer or Eichenberg on the field this spring, Bars — despite starting all 13 games at right tackle last year — was switched inside to allow the two sophomores to battle for the tackle role. At the end of spring, the door was left slightly ajar for Bars to remain an option at tackle if needed. "We would prefer to get him in at the guard position," Kelly said of Bars midway through spring. "Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped for the right tackle position." Eichenberg did miss one practice because of a minor injury, but his rangy frame and long reach make him a far more natural tackle than guard, although fifth-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand demands flexibility from his troops. "Both are getting pretty equal reps, and everybody has gotten used to them now," Hiestand said of the two sophomores. "It was maybe a little harder when we first started. Now, Alex is used to both guys [on the right side], so it's becoming less of an issue. We're not going to force nam- ing a starter." During the spring, Hiestand did not want to disrupt the progress of the 6-6, 320-pound Bars at right guard. "Alex could play both," Hiestand said. "I don't know if I can say guard is his best position, but he's really learning and doing well right now. That's what is best for us." Still, it's never easy for younger players such as Kraemer and Eichen- berg to deal with playing in space at tackle at this level. "It takes a little time because they're both big guys, particularly Tommy," Hiestand said. "His body can get a little out of whack. It's a process. He's steadily improving, but sometimes looks out of position. Right now he will be at right tackle. He's also played a lot of right guard, which wouldn't be a big adjustment for him." Fortunately, Notre Dame's 2017 of- fensive line appears to be a carbon copy of 2015. Or at least one hopes it can and will be. After an inconsistent 2014, the vet- eran line with 68 career starts was expected to be and turned out to be the strength of the 10-3 team in 2015 that finished No. 11 in the Associated Press poll. The 207.6 rushing yards per game that season was the most at Notre Dame (including bowl games) since 1998. There will be similar expectations on this year's line, which returns 76 career starts after having only 27 en- tering last season's 4-8 meltdown. The 2015 unit had two of the na- tion's top players at their positions — first-round NFL Draft pick left tackle Ronnie Stanley and second-round cen- ter Nick Martin (shifted from guard). In 2017, both left tackle Mike Mc- Glinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson are bona fide first-round candidates next spring after earning some All-America notice last year. In 2015, the Irish featured four re- turning starters along the front, includ- ing a former tackle turned right guard in Steve Elmer. In 2017, four of the five starters return again, among them for- mer tackle turned right guard Bars. Finally, the one vacated spot along the line in 2015 featured a battle be- tween two sophomores who were redshirted the year prior: Nelson and Bars. Continuing the trend this year at right tackle were two more sopho- mores in Kraemer and Eichenberg, both of whom redshirted last season. That's the type of offensive line re- run Notre Dame' staff would heartily welcome. ✦ RIGHT TACKLE BATTLE Sophomore offensive linemen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg are vying for the starting role Kraemer (No. 78) and Eichenberg (No. 74), both of whom redshirted in 2016, were locked in a heated competition for the right tackle job dur- ing the spring that was expected to extend into the fall. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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