Top 10: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football’s 10 Best Offensive Line Recruiting Classes
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Top 10: Notre Dame’s Best Offensive Line Recruiting Classes

Notre Dame signed five offensive linemen in the 2021 recruiting cycle, a quintet tied with Oregon for No. 5 in the country by Rivals, behind Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Texas A&M.

The group is led by five-star Blake Fisher, the No. 25-ranked player overall, and Rocco Spindler, who is No. 67. Four-star Caleb Johnson and three-star figures Pat Coogan and Joe Alt round out the group.

Two years earlier, the current Irish junior offensive linemen were ranked collectively a little higher at No. 3 (behind Alabama and Tennessee): center Zeke Correll, guard John Olmstead (who transferred to Lafayette), and tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic were all given four-star rankings. Carroll received the highest national rating from Rivals at No. 68, Correll was No. 114, Olmstead No. 118 — and Kristofic was named to the 2019 All-American Bowl in San Antonio.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football offensive linemen Alex Bars (71), Sam Mustipher (53) and Quenton Nelson (56)
The 2014 trio that included Alex Bars (71), Sam Mustipher (53) and Quenton Nelson (56) was one of the strongest offensive line groups signed by Notre Dame. (Corey Bodden)

Can this 2021 harvest become one of the best offensive line hauls ever at Notre Dame? That will be answered in about four or five years, but first a standard must be reviewed in terms of impact, balance at the position and how many do become major figures.

For example, in 2006 Notre Dame signed a six-man group — Sam Young, Eric Olsen, Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger, Matt Carufel and Bartley Webb — that at the time was projected by recruiting analysts as potentially the greatest assembly of offensive line talent in one class at Notre Dame.

It wasn’t bad, with Young and Olsen becoming sixth-round picks (and Young still in the NFL), but it endured a lot of growing pains while the team went 16-21 their final three seasons.

It was tough in this countdown to leave out the 2009 recruited duo of Zack Martin and Chris Watt based on numbers alone.

We begin this top 10 with the 1964 season — the year college football went to two platoons (offense and defense) permanently. Otherwise, units from the 1940s and 1950s would be at the top.

10t. 2013: Mike McGlinchey, Steve Elmer, Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus

10t. 2017: Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks, Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons

First-round pick McGlinchey earned consensus All-American honors and was the No. 9 overall NFL pick in 2018 (and the first tackle). Elmer started two-and-a-half years and graduated in three. He might have had a pro career but had no interest in continuing football. McGovern, Bivin and Montelus were slowed by injuries, although the first two had starts.

From 2017, Hainsey started as a freshman and became a two-time captain, while three-year starter Banks could be an early-round selection this spring. Depending on how much 2021 projected starter Lugg (who has more than a half-dozen starts) and Gibbons contribute this season, this group could climb several spots by the end of 2021.

9. 1986: Tim Grunhard, Dean Brown, Jeff Pearson and Jim Kinsherf

Lou Holtz’s first class included long-time Kansas City Chiefs center Grunhard. Brown started next to him two years on teams that won a school record 23 straight games. Pearson, from the same high school as Grunhard, started as a sophomore before getting dismissed and transferring to Michigan State

Joining this group in 1986 was walk-on and future NFL player Mike Brennan — although he actually enrolled in 1985.

8. 1990: Aaron Taylor, Tim Ruddy and Mike McGlinn

Two-time consensus All-American Taylor won the Lombardi Award and was last month inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He and center Ruddy — a second-round selection who starred for 10 years in the NFL — spearheaded a line that helped Notre Dame win 17 straight games. McGlinn was never a full-time starter but also was inserted at times as a blocking tight end.

7. 1965: Bob Kuechenberg, George Kunz, Tim Monty, Tom McKinley and Ed Tuck

Kunz, the No. 2 overall pick in 1969, was an eight-time Pro Bowl pick and Kuechenberg six. Kunz started as a sophomore for the 1966 national champs before he was injured in the second game and replaced by Kuechenberg, who moved to defense in 1967. Had Kuechenberg stayed on offense, this group would be in the top 5.

McKinley was a two-year starter at guard, while Monty started at center as a senior and finished out the 1966 national title run as a 198-pound snapper against Michigan State and USC in place of the injured George Goeddeke. Tuck was a sixth-round NFL pick at guard despite not starting for the Irish.

6. 1987: Mike Heldt, Tim Ryan, Winston Sandri and Joe Allen

Center Heldt and guard Ryan were three-year starters, highlighted by the school-record 23-game winning streak. Their impact was significant, with Ryan moving over from linebacker.

Sandri and Allen also started several times between them as sophomore for the 1988 national champs, and provided quality depth in future years.

5. 1974: Ernie Hughes, Steve McDaniels, Dave Vinson, Harry Woebkenberg and Mike Carney

A three-year starter at right guard, Hughes was a second-team AP and UPI All-American for the 1977 national champs, while 6-7, 276-pound McDaniels — a Goliath in his time — joined him on the right side.

Vinson earned Academic All-American notice as a part-time starter at left guard. Tackle Woebkenberg and guard Carney started on the left side as juniors in 1976 before leaving Notre Dame for different reasons prior to their senior years.

4. 2014: Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Jimmy Byrne

In prior years, Byrne might have had a chance to start, but with the nine players Notre Dame signed in 2013 (five) and then in this class, it was a challenge to break into the two deep.

Unanimous All-American guard Nelson joined Barry Sanders this year as the lone first-team All-Pro picks the past 30 years in each of their first three seasons.

Like Nelson, Mustipher and Bars were named captains and were three-year starters and vital figures during Notre Dame’s 22-4 run in 2017-18, with a College Football Playoff bid in 2018.

3. 1988: Mirko Jurkovic, Justin Hall, Gene McGuire and Lindsay Knapp

Four offensive linemen were recruited in 1988 — and each became two-year starters on a top-10 program. That is an outstanding hit rate!

Jurkovic, who played on defense for the 1988 national champs, was an All-American right guard as a senior, and Hall was on the verge of starting as a freshman right tackle before getting injured. Sadly, both died far too young.

McGuire played guard, center and tackle during his career, and Knapp was a two-year starter at left tackle.

2. 1971: Gerry DiNardo, Steve Sylvester, Steve Neece, Steve Quehl and Ed Bauer

DiNardo was a three-year starter and consensus All-American right guard, while right tackle Sylvester won three Super Bowls with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders, plus a 1973 national title ring. Left tackle Neece also started every game in 1973-74 when Notre Dame was 21-2.

Quehl began his career at tight end, played tackle and started at center in 1975 — a unit that left tackle Bauer, who also enrolled as a tight end, co-captained.

1. 1963: Tom Regner, Paul Seiler, George Goeddeke and Dirk Swatland

Interim coach Hugh Devore recruited them and Ara Parseghian and Co., developed them into national champs as 1966 seniors.

Seiler was the 12th pick of the 1967 NFL Draft and Regner — who started on defense as a sophomore in 1964-65 and played both ways in 1965 — was selected 23rd.

Center Goeddeke was a second-team UPI and third-team Associated Press All-American who played six years in the NFL. Swatland was a two-year starting guard who made the Time All-America team and also played in the NFL.

This group checked every box: multiple first-round picks, national title and quality depth.

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