Crossing The Lines

With a powerhouse offensive line and a new playcalling nerve, Brian Kelly can redefine his tenure if he commits to riding that talented front.

Elijah Shumate passes it every day exiting the Gug.

Around the corner from where Notre Dame’s safeties meet is the offensive line meting room, a one door cinema club that can elevate this fall from good to great. Unless it’s study hall or training table, Shumate sees the Irish line perpetually at work, watching film on loop, a mass of humanity that caucuses by the 300-pounder.

It’s never one offensive lineman watching film. It’s always a hoard.

“They eat, sleep and drink film, that’s why they’re so good,” Shumate said. “It’s all day, it never stops. I walk down the hall, there’s always two or three behind me going to watch film.

“I feel like the offensive line is gonna be the heart of the team.”

How much blood the line pumps this season will be constricted only by Brian Kelly. This should be the best top-to-bottom group Kelly has had. He let it batter LSU in the Music City Bowl. He let it beat up Notre Dame’s undermanned defensive front in the Blue-Game Game too.

If Notre Dame wants to make a serious College Football Playoff push this fall, Kelly must keep that nerve. Let his line power a spread system prone to put too much on its quarterback. Whether it’s Everett Golson or Malik Zaire, let that quarterback stand on the line’s shoulders instead of lifting the entire offense.

In the spring game’s first half with the quarterbacks live, Notre Dame rushed 30 times against just 12 passes. That’s a forgotten footnote today if it didn’t follow the 51-carry game against LSU that salvaged something from last season.

“I do think that’s a big change in identity from the year previous to now,” said left tackle Ronnie Stanley. “Every team wants to establish the run game. It’s something you have to do to be successful. We know that if we want to be a championship team we’re gonna have to run the ball when it matters.”

With Stanley, Mike McGlinchey, Steve Elmer, Nick Martin left guard TBA between Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson, 3rd-and-4 doesn’t have to mean 3rd-and-long. In the first series Saturday the Irish ran off that down and Folston moved the chains.

There’s no question Notre Dame can run the ball this year. But remember that hasn’t always been the case.

For the blowback Kelly takes for his pass-first mentality, Notre Dame’s own line understands why the Irish played that way most of last season. The front wasn’t good enough to replicate the LSU game plan in September or October or November. This is the same group that reshuffled after three games and couldn’t cut block at Arizona State.

The line had moments, just not enough for Kelly to lean on it.

“I think we were capable of doing it, we just had to be more consistent,” Elmer said. “We did a lot of things we did against LSU at certain points during the season, it just wasn’t all the time.

“Every time the play is snapped does the offensive line give the play a chance? That’s what we’ve been chasing since day one.”

The Irish have finally caught it, giving the program an identity as permanent as the “ND family” tattoo on Stanley’s chest. Even with a quarterback competition dragging into camp, Notre Dame doesn’t need training camp to be a month of self-discovery.

“We can't wait four or five weeks to find out, ‘Oh, well, we're a running team. We're a passing team. We're this, we're that,’” Kelly said. “We want to use those (summer) OTAs to really start to establish our DNA and our identity as to who we are.”

Notre Dame doesn’t even need to wait that long.

What the Irish did in the Music City Bowl carried over into winter workouts. And winter workouts carried into spring ball. Spring ball should carry into summer and into training camp and into the season. Notre Dame wants those trend lines to continue.

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t,” said running back Tarean Folston. “LSU, a lot of people saw a different side of us. We came out with the intention of running the ball down their throat. I feel like we have (our identity) … it’s not gonna go nowhere.”

Notre Dame’s quarterback competition will continue to suck most of the oxygen around the program this summer and into next season. But it shouldn’t. Whether it’s Golson or Zaire taking that first snap against Texas, the TBD quarterback will lead an offense with a healthy heartbeat up front.

When Stanley arrived for postgame interviews Saturday, somebody joked the Blue-Gold Game offensive MVP had arrived after his 14-yard reception. Maybe there will be another gadget play for the future NFL tackle in the works. But between the Music City Bowl and the Blue-Gold Game, it’s clear the Irish don’t need gimmicks for the offensive line to stand out.

The identity of Notre Dame’s season is already set thanks to its MVP: Most Valuable Position. 


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories