Notre Dame’s 2017 offensive line will be one of the team’s most experienced units, but it will be without 2016 eight-game starter Colin McGovern, who will join fellow 2013 Fighting Irish recruit and offensive lineman John Montelus at Virginia for their fifth-year senior seasons.
It will also mark the second straight year that the Fighting Irish will have four or fewer fifth-year seniors.
McGovern’s situation is similar to 2015 when Irish fifth-year senior Matt Hegarty, who had started 13 games at center and guard, opted to use his final year at Oregon for a couple of reasons. One, guard/captain Nick Martin was being moved to Hegarty’s center spot. And two, the coaching staff was eager to move rising sophomore star Quenton Nelson, or Alex Bars, into a starting role at guard opposite Steve Elmer. Hegarty was invited back to compete for a starting job, but his preference was to remain at center, so he transferred to Oregon after graduating.
Likewise, in 2016, the 6-4, 310-pound McGovern won the starting right guard job, vacated by early graduate Elmer, over fellow senior Hunter Bivin and sophomore Tristen Hoge (the backup center in 2016). McGovern started the first six games before an ankle injury sidelined him in the 17-10 loss to Stanford Oct. 15 (with Bivin the starter).
After the bye week Oct. 22, McGovern incurred a concussion (his second in the past year) in the win over Miami. He started the next week against Navy, but the final three starts at right guard were by fifth-year senior Mark Harrell.
McGovern, besieged by injuries much of his career, had the option to return in 2017, but would not be considered a lock for a starting spot because of the return of Hoge — entering his third season on the team — and the rise of current freshman Tommy Kraemer, who like Nelson in 2014 was one of Notre Dame’s top two recruits (No. 41 overall prospect nationally according to Rivals.com) in 2016 prior to redshirting.
Because he cracked the starting lineup in 2016, McGovern had been leaning to returning to Notre Dame in 2017.
“I wasn’t sure what I would have done next year had I not gotten a spot and proven myself,” McGovern told Notre Dame’s campus student newspaper The Observer last fall about starting and possibly returning in 2017. “It’s been huge for this year and especially next year, since I plan to come back.”
Now, the options are multiple again, just like last year when Elmer left the vacancy in 2016.
• Does the staff move current junior Bars — who started all 12 games at right tackle last season — to right guard (he started two games at left guard in 2015 before getting injured)? Generally, the preference is to not disrupt continuity and move someone to a new spot, although the staff did that least season by shifting 13-game starter Mike McGlinchey from right tackle to left tackle to replace Ronnie Stanley.
The move of Bars then would allow Kraemer and fellow freshman Liam Eichenberg to vie for the right tackle spot the way Nelson and Bars did at left guard in 2015. Nevertheless, securing a tackle spot is a greater priority than guard because of the importance of setting the edge. Thus, Bars has an advantage there of remaining at tackle due to the experience factor.
• Does Kraemer get the first shot at right guard? The staff has been eager to get him into the rotation, much like Nelson in 2015 and Stanley in 2013, even though he redshirted the year prior as a freshman.
• Will Hoge be considered one of the top five linemen this spring? If so, could he start at either right guard or center, possibly moving incumbent center Sam Mustipher to right guard?
Whatever the solution will be along the right side, the Fighting Irish offensive line will be vastly more seasoned than in 2016.
Entering the 2016 season, assistant coach Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had 27 career starts to its credit — 14 by McGlinchey (who would be playing a new position), 11 by Nelson and two by Bars.
This year, it will nearly triple that total with 76 — left tackle McGlinchey has 26, left guard Nelson 23, right tackle Bars 14, center Mustipher 12 and guard/tackle Bivin one.
At one point, Notre Dame had 10 fifth-year senior candidates for 2017. However, it appears it will return only four at the most. In addition to McGlinchey and tight end Durham Smythe, Bivin ostensibly would be the third in a role similar to Harrell entering last season.
Tight end Jacob Matuska could be a fourth, but he played only 10 snaps on offense last year, and his crowded position returns Smythe, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, plus top 2015 tight end Alizé Jones (academically ineligible last season) and top-100 incoming freshmen Brock Wright (an early enrollee) and Cole Kmet.
In addition to Harrell, Notre Dame’s three other fifth-year players last year were nose guard Jarron Jones, long snapper Scott Daly and running back Josh Anderson.
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