While Notre Dame’s safety position has had much movement this spring, including sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath working at Buck linebacker in Saturday’s practice, no position group has had quite the shuffling of personnel like the offensive line.
Despite returning four regulars from last season, sorting out the Rubik-Cube-like left side that graduated potential first-round picks Quenton Nelson at guard and Mike McGlinchey at tackle has been a priority.
It began this spring with sophomore and former right tackle Robert Hainsey at left tackle and senior backup center Trevor Ruhland at left guard.
Next it was Hainsey staying at left tackle and his former 2017 co-starter at right tackle, junior Tommy Kraemer, shifting next to him at left guard.
Finally, the best possible combination may have been achieved with junior Liam Eichenberg at left tackle and fifth-year senior and 2017 starting right guard Alex Bars at left guard. Here’s why:
First, Hainsey gets to move back to right tackle, where he excelled last season.
Second, Kraemer also gets to shift back to his more natural right-handed stance while working next to Hainsey as the right guard. Both developed a communication and bond last season that should carry over into 2018.
Third, Eichenberg’s 6-6 1/8, 303-pound frame, to go with competent footwork, might be a better option to protect the blind side of Notre Dame’s right-handed quarterbacks than Hainsey’s 6-4 5/8, 291-pound build.
Fourth, because Eichenberg is the lone new starter along the offensive line, it’s prudent to move third-year starter Bars — who made his first two collegiate starts in 2015 at left guard — to provide some aid beside him.
“What we really like about Liam is his strength, his size, his physicality,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s learning, so why not move a veteran next to him where he can communicate with him, help him pass off twists, give him some [guidance] prior to the snap and settle him?
“[Eichenberg] can stand up to different pass rushes we’re going to get out there, the bull rush, and he’s long enough to help off the edge.”
McGlinchey wasn’t prepared for a full-time role until his third season, and the same has been true of Eichenberg, who was beat out by the younger Hainsey last year for the co-starting role with Kraemer at right tackle.
“It’s been more mental than anything else, the ability to settle down,” replied Kelly when asked what has been the difference in Eichenberg from last year. “He didn’t play with the kind of confidence he needed to. Emotionally, he’s in a comfort level.”
Bars began his career at left tackle as a 2014 freshman, started two games at left guard in 2015, all 12 games at right tackle in 2016, and all 13 games at right guard in 2017, so change is hardly alien to him.
The lone player along the starting line who wasn’t switched around this spring was third-year starting center/captain Sam Mustipher.
With a veteran offensive line plus seasoned running backs last season, combined with huge inexperience at quarterback, the team identity was established quickly in the spring: run the ball, with some play-action passing to augment it.
It showed during the 10-3 season with a 269.5 rushing average per game that finished seventh nationally.
That is the direction still preferred, but now with the line in some flux, veteran back Josh Adams off to the NFL and more experience at quarterback, Kelly admits this spring has centered more on the aerial attack.
“We have focused on getting the right players in the right positions,” he said of the line. "The primary focus has been on consistency in our throwing game. And then as a group … we’ve focused on the run game.
“We’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we wanted to grow in. I think in the spring game [next Saturday] we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and be who we have been.
“But it’s hard for me to say, ‘Hey, we’re so much better running the football without Nelson and McGlinchey.’ We’ve been focusing on other things, quite frankly.”
'Amping’ Up Brandon Wimbush
Wimbush’s passing highlighted Saturday’s practice, with Kelly even noting it was the senior’s best effort of the spring while continuing to build upon his consistency.
“His footwork has now put him in position where he can accurately put the ball where it needs to be and be so much more consistent with his progression reads,” Kelly said. “Throwing the seam ball — I don’t know that we throw a seam last year, other than a bender with a tight end.”
Eventually, Kelly wants Wimbush to become more demonstrative on the field to balance wanting to take a deep breath during the heat of action.
“What I want him to do is amp it up a little bit, because when he’s amped up, and he’s talking, and he’s communicating, that comforts the other 10 players,” Kelly explained. “They know that if Brandon Wimbush is out there barking and telling guys what to do, they know we’re going to score.
“It’s kind of like flipping that role a little bit and putting that on Brandon to be, ‘Hey, I want you to be vocal, I want you to say I want the ball.’ Because if the other guys hear that, you have that kind of demeanor and mind-set, the other 10 guys are going to be cool customers.”
Kickoff Rule Change
A 2018 rule change in college football will allow kickoff return men to fair catch inside the 25-yard line that would automatically give the receiving team possession at its 25.
According to Kelly, that likely will eliminate the “pooch kick” as a strategy. The objective there is to boot the kickoff high and toward the sideline around the 10-yard line to provide a better chance to bottle up the return man inside the 20-yard line on the return.
Beyond that, Kelly doesn’t believe the rule will have a game-changing effect. Kickers will now have more of a mandate to boot the ball out of the end zone for an automatic touchback.
“When you think about it being applied practically, it’s not going to be as big of a deal as many people have worried that it might be,” Kelly opined.
“Once you take away the pooch kick with the fair catch being the 25-yard line, I don’t know that we’re going to see it actually quite a bit. We’ll have to work on [our return men] in terms of making decisions from probably the goal line, to the five-, 10-yard line — we’ll have to settle on what that ‘sweet spot’ is for us tactically.”
• Junior cornerback Troy Pride Jr. was lauded by Kelly as someone who has been as consistent at his position as anyone this spring.
“Really pleased with his physicality, his strength, his knowledge,” Kelly said. “… He knows he’s playing really well.”
• For the second straight open practice on Saturday, sophomore tight end Brock Wright took one of the bigger hits in practice — and sprang right up. That was especially pleasing to Kelly after Wright underwent off-season shoulder surgery and was not expected to take contact this spring, but was cleared earlier this month.
“He put himself back into position to be a solid player for us after shoulder surgery — and I say that because that doesn’t happen easily,” Kelly said. “Guys come back, they’re hesitant, they’re not fully engaged … he’s picked up and put [himself] back in a position where we didn’t even know he had surgery.”
While senior Alize Mack and sophomore Cole Kmet can be more off-the-line tight ends as pass catchers, Wright’s role as a fullback-like blocker that he had last year will remain, although he too is plenty capable as a pass catcher.
“We didn’t recruit him for that,” said Kelly of Wright not having maybe as active a receiving role as a Mack. “We wanted a great point-of-attack blocker, a guy that can catch the ball off our boot game, play-action game, and I guy that we can use with his size in the red zone. I think he’s going to be that and more.”
• Speaking of Kmet, he earned his team high seventh save in two innings of work during a 12-8 victory at No. 2 North Carolina State on Friday. The Irish lost a doubleheader to the Wolfpack on Saturday, but Kmet recorded his first collegiate hit late after having previously been used only for pitching this season. Notre Dame is 15-21 overall and 6-12 in the ACC.
• Fourth-year starting kicker Justin Yoon was back after going to a kicking camp last weekend to continue honing his technique.