There’s little questioning the talent Notre Dame has on its offensive line, with former four- or five-star recruits starting at four of the five positions on it.
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson have been pegged by some NFL talent evaluators as future first-round draft picks, and coach Brian Kelly once described right tackle Alex Bars as one of the offensive line prospects he’s seen in his quarter-century of coaching.
The flip side to all this is only one player — Nelson — is starting at the position he played last year. McGlinchey moved from right tackle to left tackle, while Bars filled in at left guard for a few games and center Sam Mustipher and right guards Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin both are first-time starters (McGovern missed the Stanford game with a concussion and Bivin started in his place). For all the talent that’s here, there’s not a lot of experience playing, let alone with each other.
“We have to improve in some of the fundamentals in terms of our sets, in terms of the standing blocks, recognition, composure, penalties — I think that all of those are the basic fundamentals and foundation of playing winning football,” coach Brian Kelly said. “If we don't improve those, we're not going to win at the level that we need to.”
Notre Dame enters its bye week averaging 3.98 yards per carry, tied for 93rd at the FBS level. Running backs Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Tarean Folston are each gaining five or more yards on fewer than 45 percent of their rushes, while quarterback DeShone Kizer has been the team’s most effective rusher (62 carries, 367 yards, seven TDs).
The Irish offensive line has a 39.9 percent opportunity rate, which tracks the percentage of running plays that gain five or more yards — defined as the offensive line “doing its job.” That ranks 61st nationally; last year, Notre Dame’s offensive line had a opportunity rate of 45.4 percent, which ranked 4th in FBS.
While the losses of 1,000-rusher C.J. Prosise and the team’s three most experienced offensive linemen (Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer) was bound to lead to a downturn in rushing success, it’s been far more pronounced than expected 2016. And without that reliable running game, more has been put on the plate of Kizer — who also had the luxury of Will Fuller stretching the field and pushing the safeties back last year — in the passing game. Against Stanford, Kizer struggled to be the focal point of the offense and was pulled by Kelly for Malik Zaire, who wasn’t any more effective in that 17-10 loss.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Notre Dame went through some similar offensive line issues in 2014 — there was that major reshuffling of things after the first three games — and was able to turn things around a year later with most of the group returning. McGlinchey said earlier this month he’s planning on staying in school for a fifth year, which if he does would mean Notre Dame at the least would return 87 starts on its offensive line next year (92 if it miraculously gets to six wins and a bowl bid).
That of course doesn’t mean the same five will be starting next year — freshman Tommy Kraemer, for example, could get in the mix at right guard — but if they’re not, it’ll be because spring and summer competition forced a 2016 starter out of the lineup. But for now, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s goal is get the current group of five to improve over these final five games of what’s been an otherwise disastrous season.
“We vetted this out, they're the best players that we have,” Kelly said. “They're all players that will return for us, they're all players that are going to be here for at least another year, so this is a commitment towards this year and getting them better so we can get through this skid that we're on.”