The play of the Notre Dame offensive line has seen its highs and lows this season. In this comparison of Brian Kelly's past two rosters, we start in the trenches with the offensive line.
When looking to compare Brian Kelly's roster at Cincinnati and the one he has played with at Notre Dame this season, keep one thing in mind. Jeff Quinn, Kelly's longtime offensive line coach is not at Buffalo as a head coach. In Quinn's place is Ed Warinner, a longtime offensive line coach with coordinators experience.
While every offensive line coach has his way of doing things, be positive Warinner is doing things the way Kelly wants them done. However, do not mistake the job Quinn had done during his years with Kelly.
As you will see, Kelly had a more experienced group taking the field during the 2009 season at Cincinnati.
UC - LT: Jeff Linkenbach (Senior) – Ended up starting 44 games during his Cincinnati career. Signed as free agent by the Colts, made roster and has played.
ND – LT: Zack Martin (Sophomore) / Matt Romine (Senior) – Martin has stated nine games this season at both left and right tackle. Entered the season without any game action. Romine has played on both sides depending upon injuries. Romine entered the season without any career starts.
BREAKDOWN: Zack Martin is showing signs of being a very solid player during his Notre Dame career. With Martin having moved to the right side for a few games, and the fact the Irish entered this season with no career starts at this position, the advantage goes to Cincinnati and Jeff Linkenbach. Advantage: UC
UC - LG: Jason Kelce (Redshirt Junior) – Kelce is one of Brian Kelly's and Paul Longo's projects. A walk-on linebacker under Mark Dantonio, Kelce listened to Longo and Kelly and move to offensive line putting on the weight and strength needed. One of Paul Longo's favorite players who earned Second Team All-Big East honors.
ND - LG: Chris Stewart (Redshirt Senior) – Has started all nine games on the season and had 22 career starts entering his final season at Notre Dame.
BREAKDOWN: During his career, Chris Stewart has seen his share of time on the field. There is no mistaking Stewart's size advantage against any defensive lineman. However, in Brian Kelly's offense, Stewart is too big and too slow to make the pull plays at the speed Jason Kelce did in 2009. Advantage: UC
UC - C: Chris Jurek (Redshirt Senior) – Ended up starting 35 games during his Cincinnati career. Solid player who used smarts and technique to become one of the top centers in the Big East.
ND – C: Braxton Cave (Junior) – Had appeared in 13 career games mostly on special teams. Earned starting spot and has started every game this season.
BREAKDOWN: Cave has seen good games and some not so good games during the season. This should be expected, as it is his first extended time on the field. He has played solid enough Irish fans should expect Cave to return next season as a veteran starter. Nevertheless, Jurek entered the 2009 season with 22 career starts and fully understood all the calls needed in Kelly's offense. Advantage: UC
UC - RG: Alex Hoffman (Redshirt Sophomore) – After the 2009 season had posted 15 career starts most at right guard. Moved to right tackle for one start during the 2009 season and was replaced by C.J. Cobb. Still playing at UC.
ND – RG: Trevor Robinson (Junior) – Entered the season as a returning starter with 14 career starts. Has started every game on the season.
BREAKDOWN: This may be the one position along the offensive line the Irish match up with Kelly's starters at Cincinnati. Hoffman had shown promise the season before having started in a key win over West Virginia. Robinson entered the season a veteran with double-digit starts. Advantage: ND
UC - RT: Sam Griffin (Junior) – Started twelve of thirteen games during the season as an undersized right tackle (6-foot-4, 260-pounds). Still playing at UC. The one game Griffin missed he was replaced by Hoffman.
BREAKDOWN: Not many college programs would start an offensive lineman at right tackle who hit the scales at 260-pounds. But that is what Kelly did in 2009 and Griffin gave him quality starts. At Notre Dame, three players have earned starts. Brian Kelly has seen enough quality starts to have a slight advantage with his Notre Dame players. However, keep in mind offensive line play is about a group playing together and the mixing at this position means the right guard also has to learn the small things about the guy next to him. Advantage: ND
This is where the argument about star rankings and players fitting into a system really shows up. None of the starters Kelly used in 2009 at Cincinnati were given much consideration coming out of high school.
Linkenbach and Jurek were both two-star non-ranked scholarship players in the Class of 2005. Kelce was a walk-on 215-pound linebacker in the Class of 2006. Griffin and Hoffman were two-star non-ranked players in the Class of 2007.
Those lining up for the Irish this season are a majority of four-star highly ranked prospects while Zack Martin was a three-star coming out of high school.
While there were clear advantages in Kelly's roster at Cincinnati, there is still some solid players lining up this season along the line. Each of those who started at UC had the advantage of playing in Kelly and Quinn's system for most of their career, while those at Notre Dame are just starting to fully understand the system and what is needed of them to play at a high level.
If you had only once choice to play out the season, Kelly's offensive line at Cincinnati would have a slight advantage over the one at Notre Dame.