College Football’s Best 2018 Offensive Lines: Notre Dame

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Throughout the remainder of the off-season, I will be previewing the best returning offensive line units in college football. These previews will give us the opportunity to scout some of the top offensive line prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft, while also highlighting those whose names we will likely see in 2020 and beyond.

There’s really something to be said about winning a TEAM award in college football. In general, there aren’t many awards given to a group of guys that epitomizes their profound teamwork displayed on the field game-in and game-out. There are plenty of awards that are given to players based on their individual performances, like the Heisman, Bednarik, Biletnikoff, and Jim Thorpe Awards. However, players are still able to win most of these awards regardless of the successful of the rest of the team around them.

When the Notre Dame offensive line took home the Joe Moore Award in 2017, it was a testament to their unparalleled communication and camaraderie that they displayed in every game from the first whistle to the last. And you might be thinking “oh well of course they won the award. They had two All-Americans and both of them went in the top-10 of the draft!” Well, as easy as this fact is to point at, this is definitely not the case. The University of Iowa won the award in 2016 in a year they had zero All-Americans and numerous starting lineups due to injury. They also beat out powerhouse programs Alabama and Ohio State, both of whom are known for vacuuming up top talent and spitting out NFL players.

Do you still think star-power is the key? I didn’t think so.

The Fighting Irish lost two All-Americans to the NFL, as left guard Quenton Nelson and left tackle Mike McGlinchey were drafted by the Colts (6th overall) and 49ers (9th overall), respectively. Two players do not make up an entire offensive line, no matter how talented, and the Irish are lucky enough to bring back their starting center, right guard, and right tackle from last year’s squad. They also boast some young and exciting talent that should be able to step right in and man the large voids left by the Nelson and McGlinchey.

Until summer camp starts, it’s difficult to piece together the expected starting five due to all kinds of extenuating factors that may rear their head prior to the season such as injuries, off-field issues, and the like. For these previews I will be taking the starting five from their spring practices plus what ramblings I can find from team-related websites in order to piece together the most realistic starting group.

Left Tackle – #74 Liam Eichenberg / 6-6 ⅛ 303lbs. / Redshirt Sophomore

According to Tyler James of the South Bend Tribune, redshirt sophomore Liam Eichenberg is slated as the number one option at left tackle after a phenomenal month of spring practices. Head coach Brian Kelly went on the record saying that he loves Eichenberg’s size and reach at the position, noting that he prefers to have the better length at the left tackle position over the right tackle spot.

Eichenberg had a shot to crack the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman but Tommy Kraemer came out of camp with right tackle duties while fellow freshman Robert Hainsey was slotted in as his backup. This left Eichenberg as the next man in behind McGlinchey at left tackle where he could learn from one of the best in the nation at the position. Eichenberg played in just five games this past season, usually in Notre Dame’s blowout victories.

It should also be noted that Kelly mentioned there were no physical limitations holding Eichenberg back, but mostly the small, mental details that can stop a gifted player from seeing the field. Kelly said, “He was a little bit too, I wouldn’t say not confident, but you could see he didn’t play with the kind of confidence that he needed to.”

Eichenberg will be draft eligible in 2019 but I would be surprised to see him leave South Bend after this season. It would not be the smartest decision to declare with just one year of starting experience, even with the pedigree that Notre Dame has recently developed with their offensive line products. He can only benefit from another year in the program and he just had two great examples of what his path could be like if he chooses to stay.

The coaching staff also made the decision to move fifth-year senior right guard Alex Bars to left guard in order to give Eichenberg a veteran presence in which he can benefit off of as a new starter.

Left Guard – #71 Alex Bars / 6’6 312lbs. / Redshirt Senior

Bars and center Sam Musitpher are the two most seasoned vets along the offensive line. After redshirting his first year on campus in 2014, the Tennessee-native appeared in six games the following year, starting two at left guard in place of an injured Quenton Nelson. In 2016, Bars locked down the right tackle spot as a redshirt sophomore where he started all 12 games for the Golden Domers.

For this past season, Bars was tasked with moving once again to the inside as he started every game at the right guard position after redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer slid in at right tackle. During spring practices, in order to patch up the left side of the offensive line, Bars is making his third position switch, heading back to left guard. With first-time starter Liam Eichenberg at the blind side, Bars can be that rock-steady presence he needs in the most pivotal of moments.

At 6-foot-6, Bars and new right guard Tommy Kramer will combine to make one of the tallest guard duos in the country. Combine the run blocking prowess of these two plus center Sam Mustipher and the Fighting Irish should be able to hang their hat on their ability to run the ball inside in short-yardage situations without too many second thoughts.

Center – #53 Sam Mustipher / 6’2 305lbs. / Redshirt Senior

Mustipher is a stocky, well-packed center entering his third season as the full-time center for the Fighting Irish, making him the only returning member who will play the same position from 2017. He will also be entering his first season as a newly-minted permanent team-captain.

After being hand-selected as the heir to the center position following former second-round pick Nick Martin’s departure to the NFL, Mustipher was retrofitted into his role as the pivot without having snapped a single ball during his high-school career. Harry Hiestand, ND’s former O-Line coach now with the Chicago Bears, held a philosophy of putting his five best offensive linemen on the field, regardless if they seem to fit one position better than another.

Mustipher’s leadership qualities and veteran presence should be an easy bridge to a new period for the Notre Dame offensive line as they transition to an era without their All-American’s and Hiestand at the helm. A Rimington Award watchlist member in 2017, and likely one in 2018 as well, I expect Mustipher to come out as one of the top players at his position and the leader in the effort to reclaim the Joe Moore Award for another year.

Right Guard – #78 Tommy Kraemer / 6’5 ⅝ 315lbs. / Redshirt Sophomore

Last year’s starter at right tackle was asked to kick inside by new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn in order for the Fighting Irish to field the five best linemen combination possible. After splitting reps with true freshman Robert Hainsey at the right tackle position in 2017, the two outstanding tackles will get the chance to display their talents while working side-by-side during this upcoming season.

At a strong 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Kraemer is a lengthy guard with a well-built core and some solid strength behind his initial strike. As a consistent hip-roller through contact, Kramer is able to get the best of his opponents from the very start of the play. One of the better run blockers on the team, expect the majority of Notre Dame’s runs between the tackles to take place behind the rear of Kraemer.

Right Tackle: #72 Robert Hainsey / 6’4 ½ 292lbs. / True Sophomore

Hainsey won the backup right tackle gig as a true freshman prior to the 2017 season, beating out Eichenberg, due to his ability to pick up the offense and manage the necessary mental aspects of the game. Although he was considered the “backup”, Hainsey and starter Tommy Kraemer split time at right tackle throughout all 13 games, switching off every series to the point they were considered “co-starters.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hainsey prepped at powerhouse IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida where he helped them to a national rank of #3 as they finished 11-0 on the year. He also helped power an offense that outscored their opponents 401-104. By the end of his senior year, Hainsey was named an Under Armour All-American, as well as the No. 31 ranked player in the country and the No. 1 overall guard prospect by ESPN.com.

Hainsey was described as a “powerful” offensive line prospect coming out of high-school and it’s evident when you throw on the the tape. The true sophomore has heavy hands that he utilizes to disrupt pass rushers and settle down those attempting to bullrush the young lineman. He is already an established pass protector but will need to work on his run blocking to round out his game. Kraemer is the better run blocker of the two right-siders and will help balance things out on that side of the line.

Looking Ahead

The Notre Dame offense hung their hat on their run game, as they ranked seventh in the country with 269.3 yards per game on the ground in 2017. With that incredible left side of the offensive line gone to the NFL, along with productive running back Josh Adams, the offense will have to rely on some new faces.

Quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book return after a 2017 season that saw them split meaningful snaps all the way up through the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU. Both were underwhelming passers with enough ability in their legs to make the offense go. With the new guys up front and a new runner in the backfield, expect head coach Brian Kelly to keep things unchanged as they continue to dominate opponents through the trenches with their zone-heavy scheme that Hiestand drilled into perfection before his departure. You should also expect a healthy dose of the zone read as the offense will look to keep each of their quarterbacks’ mobility an X factor for the offense.

If this group can gel anywhere near the way last years’ did, we can all look forward to another offseason of grinding the Notre Dame tape over and over again to watch the handful of offensive line prospects that could litter all three days of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Follow Michael on Twitter @ZoneTracks. Check out his other work here, such as a recap of the Los Angeles Chargers draft and why Isaiah Wynn and the Patriots are an ideal match

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