First rate: Offensive line

Brian Kelly has called his offensive line the strength of the 2015 team. At least half of Notre Dame’s 12 regular-season opponents could make a similar claim.

USC has six offensive linemen with starting experience back while Stanford – despite losing the No. 13 overall NFL pick in OT Andrus Peat – boasts one of the best blocking units in the country. If there’s a rock upon which Notre Dame will build, it’s the offensive line.

Ironically, the Trojans, Cardinal and Irish all can look back on the 2014 season and express disappointment over the way their group up front performed, which makes for an interesting study of progress/maximization of talent in 2015.

The best tackle in the country may be Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, but Stanford’s Kyle Murphy is a good one too. USC center Max Tuerk may be the nation’s best center, but Notre Dame’s Nick Martin isn’t far behind. Stanford’s Joshua Garnett is among the best guards in the country, but the Irish boast a constantly-improving Steve Elmer and a five-star talent in Quenton Nelson. On the verge of stardom, or so it appears, is Notre Dame RT Mike McGlinchey, a towering presence on the edge.

If you appreciate quality offensive line play, you’ll enjoy the matchups that await Notre Dame this fall.

13) Wake Forest (LG-Josh Harris, RG-Dylan Intemann)
What can you say about an offensive front that generated 1.25 yards per carry, 39.9 yards rushing per game and four rushing scores in 12 games? The Demon Deacons also finished dead last nationally in sacks allowed with 48. As many as three freshmen could be starting along the offensive line for Wake Forest, and Intemann is the only senior. Not much to say here other than strap on your seatbelts and hold on for dear life.

12) Temple (LG-Shahbaz Ahmed, C-Kyle Friend, RG-Brendan McGowan, RT-Eric Lofton)
The Owls do have four starters returning up front, three of which are seniors, and considering QB P.J. Walker threw nearly 400 times in ’14, the 21 sacks allowed is noteworthy. But this unit has to do a much better job opening up holes for a rushing attack that averaged 107.7 yards rushing per game and 3.5 yards per carry while scoring just 11 rushing TDs.

11) Boston College (No starters returning)
None of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents were devastated by graduation up front quite like Boston College, which lost all five starters, including OG Ian Silverman and C Andy Gallik, a pair of sixth-round NFL draft choices. One plus is that four seniors are projected as starters up front, although RT Jim Cashman is the largest of the group at a long-and-lean 6-foot-7, 301 pounds. The fact the Eagles rank 11th in our pre-season OL projections speaks to a) just how bad Temple and Wake Forest were last year and b) Steve Addazio’s ability to create a rushing attack, even without an OL starter returning.

10) Navy (LG-E.K. Binns, RT-Joey Gaston)
With veteran QB Keenan Reynolds back, the Midshipmen know how to compensate for the fact that just two starters return up front. In addition to the two starting seniors returning, there are two seniors and a junior joining them at the top of the depth chart. Notre Dame catches Navy earlier than most years (Game Five), which could be a plus for a defense that has struggled mightily for the most part against this tricky option-based attack.

9) Virginia (C-Jackson Matteo, RG-Ross Burbank, RT-Eric Smith)
Of Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents that threw the football the most, none protected its QBs better than Virginia’s front, which allowed just 16 sacks (tied for 18th nationally) on 423 attempted passes. A senior (Burbank) and two juniors (Matteo and Smith) headline a group that couldn’t pave a path for the running game last year (ranked No. 98 despite that sparkling sack stat), but boast big-play threat Taquan Mizzell at RB.

8) Texas (LT-Marcus Hutchins, LG-Sedrick Flowers, C-Taylor Doyle, RG-Kent Perkins)
Not much went right offensively for Charlie Strong’s first Longhorn squad. Texas was 98th nationally in rushing, 106th in scoring and 110th in total offense. Yet three seniors and a junior return to the starting lineup along the offensive line, which should benefit RB Johnathan Gray and whichever of the two QBs (probably Tyrone Swoopes) wins the job.

7) Pittsburgh (LT-Adam Bisnowaty, LG-Dorian Johnson)
These guys must be doing something right. Pittsburgh had the nation’s No. 15 rushing offense in ’14, although bruising RB James Conner (1,756 yds. rushing, 5.9-yard avg., 26 TDs) does much of the damage on his own. Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman in ’14 -- OT T.J. Clemmings – is gone after his selection in the fourth round of the NFL draft. The Panthers project a freshman and a sophomore on the right side of the offensive line, which could spell trouble for a team playing five of its first seven games on the road.

6) Massachusetts (LT-Tyrell Smith, LG-Michael Boland, C-Matt Sparks, RG-Fabian Hoeller, RT-Elijah Wilkinson)
The Minutemen struggled running the football behind this unit last year, finishing 112th on the ground. But considering QB Blake Frohnapfel threw nearly 450 times for 3,400 yards with most of his receiving corps and his entire offensive line back, the rushing attack may not be nearly as important as it is to other teams as long as they can keep the 6-foot-5, 230-pound signalcaller upright.

5) Clemson (C-Ryan Norton)
Three seniors dot the starting lineup up front for the Tigers, with C Norton headlining the group. It would have been four seniors returning, but LT Isaiah Battle has decided to enter the supplemental draft. LG Eric Mac Lain and RT Joe Gore also have starting experience. They expect to do a better job leading the charge of the rushing attack (88th nationally) while protecting QB Deshaun Watson, who suffered three knee injuries as a freshman. Sacks (27) were an issue at times in ’14.

4) Georgia Tech (LT-Bryan Chamberlain, LG-Trey Braun, C-Freddie Burden, RT-Errin Joe)
It starts with the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense, four starters back on the offensive line and the triggerman – QB Justin Thomas. Georgia Tech has the makings of another lethal ground game under option-game maestro Paul Johnson. The one loss up front is significant – C Shaq Mason, a fourth-round draft choice – but Burden has experience as he moves into the starting center spot. Look for the Yellow Jackets to approach last year’s 342 yards rushing per game.

3) Notre Dame (LT-Ronnie Stanley, C-Nick Martin, RG-Steve Elmer)
Although the Irish have only three main starters back along the offensive line, Stanley is projected as a first-round draft choice and perhaps the first tackle taken, Martin is the leader of the unit, Elmer is developing into Notre Dame’s best run blocker, right tackle Mike McGlinchey looked like a seasoned veteran this spring after making his first career start in the bowl game, and left guard Quenton Nelson may have the highest ceiling of them all.

2) Stanford (LT-Kyle Murphy, LG-Joshua Garnett, C-Graham Shuler, RG-Johnny Caspers)
There aren’t many college football lines that can lose a first-round draft choice at OT and still boast the offensive front as the team’s strength. But that’s the Cardinal after Andrus Peat was the No. 13 overall pick (by New Orleans). LT Murphy and LG Garnett anchor the powerful left side of a line that expects more than a No. 70 ranking in the ground game, although the running backs had as much to do with that as the wall up front.

1) USC (LT-Chad Wheeler, LG-Toa Lobendahn, C-Max Tuerk, RG-Viane Talamaivao, RT-Zach Banner)
Every starter is back, led by Tuerk, who is the only senior on the starting unit. Wheeler is coming off a torn ACL suffered in late-October. If Wheeler can’t answer the bell, massive Damien Mama moves back into the starting lineup, which is hardly a step back. The Trojans ranked only 66th nationally in rushing offense, but RB Javorius “Buck” Allen still managed to rush for 1,489 yards, a 5.4-yard average and 11 TDs. The Trojans did, however, allow 32 sacks (tied for 99th).


Here is the running tally through four positions:

1. USC (8--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st)
2. Notre Dame (14 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd)
3. Clemson (16 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th)
4. Stanford (17 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd)
5. Pittsburgh (19 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th)
6. Georgia Tech (27 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th)
7. UMass (29 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th)
8. Texas (33 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th)
9. Navy (34 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th)
10. Virginia (38 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th)
11. Boston College (39 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th)
12. Wake Forest 44 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th)
13. Temple (46 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th)


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