If you thought Notre Dame’s depth was tested during an injury-riddled 2015 season, the true measuring stick begins this spring when six of the nine positional areas on offense and defense will be adjusting to significant turnover.
With Steve Elmer’s decision to bypass his final year of eligibility made public Wednesday, Notre Dame’s offensive line went from 133 starts upon the conclusion of the Fiesta Bowl to a mere 27.
The Irish already had lost two-time captain/center Nick Martin (37 starts) and left tackle Ronnie Stanley (39) to the NFL draft. Now tack on the 30 starts lost through Elmer’s departure. That leaves the Irish with right tackle Mike McGlinchey’s 14 starts, left guard Quenton Nelson’s 11 and injured guard/tackle Alex Bars’ two.
Clearly, Brian Kelly and his staff have built up enough depth to sustain significant personnel loss and remain competitive, as evidenced by Notre Dame’s 10 victories in 2015.
Front-line player after front-line player went down – beginning with running back Tarean Folston in the season-opener and continuing into Week Two with quarterback Malik Zaire and tight end Durham Smythe – testing the recruiting surplus built up over six seasons of the Kelly regime.
But there’s much work to be done, not only along the offensive line, but at wide receiver, where two of three starters are gone, defensive line, which must replace two of four, linebacker, which is down two-thirds of its ’15 starters, and cornerback/safety, each of which lost one of two starters.
Gone are all three starting receivers – record-setting Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle. Along the defensive front, two-time captain Sheldon Day and second-half-of-the-season sensation Romeo Okwara will participate in the Indianapolis Combine next week.
At linebacker, once-in-a-lifetime Jaylon Smith and the brains of the operation, Joe Schmidt, have departed the program while cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safety Elijah Shumate sliced the starters at their positions in half.
One of the more fascinating rebuilds will come along the offensive line where the Irish not only lose 60 percent of the starting unit, but also must consider the shift of at least one and perhaps both returning starters.
McGlinchey – at 6-foot-7 ½, 310 pounds – provides the length on the edge that could make him an attractive candidate to bounce from right to left tackle in place of Stanley, who made a similar move after the 2013 season when Zack Martin completed his final year of eligibility.
Nelson, who thought of himself as a tackle upon his arrival at Notre Dame, could remain at left guard, or could shift to the right side if offensive line coach Harry Hiestand sees an alternative mix. (Hiestand is unlikely to consider the shift of Nelson to tackle with the loss of the interior bulk that Elmer provided.)
Joining McGlinchey and Nelson in the starting lineup will be Bars, who played in just six games as a red-shirt freshman, but showed himself extremely well in starts against Navy and USC as Nelson was nursing a severe ankle sprain.
Bars – once he’s fully recovered from a broken left ankle, which won’t be by the spring – offers position flexibility. He literally could end up at either guard or either tackle position, depending upon how Hiestand chooses to align McGlinchey and Nelson.
Vying for starting spots will be red-shirt sophomore center Sam Mustipher, who worked as Nick Martin’s backup in ’15, and red-shirt freshman Tristen Hoge, who preserved a year of eligibility this past season.
Colin McGovern, who enters ’16 with two years of eligibility remaining, ultimately could be the greatest beneficiary of Elmer’s decision to bypass his final year of college football.
At 6-foot-4 ½, 315 pounds, McGovern has worked at both guard positions and right tackle. He would seem best suited for guard and could step right in for Elmer on the right side.
But there’s also Hunter Bivin, who enters ’16 with two years remaining as well. He prepped at left tackle behind Stanley in ’15 after dabbling inside early in his career with the Irish.
Other scholarship offensive linemen this fall include guard John Montelus (two years eligibility), guard Jimmy Byrne (three), guard/tackle Trevor Ruhland (four) and fifth-year tackle Mark Harrell, who also saw practice time at center and guard earlier in his career.
Incoming freshmen include highly-touted tackles Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, and guard Parker Boudreaux.
Among the possible alignments this fall:
• LT-McGlinchey, LG-Nelson, C-Mustipher/Hoge, RG-McGovern, RT-Bars
• LT-McGlinchey, LG-Nelson, C-Mustipher/Hoge, RG-Bars, RT-McGovern/Bivin
• LT-Bars, LG-Nelson, C-Mustipher/Hoge, RG-McGovern, RT-McGlinchey
• LT-Bivin, LG-Nelson, C-Mustipher/Hoge, RG-Bars, RT-McGlinchey
• LT-McGlinchey, LG-Bars, C-Mustipher/Hoge, RG-Nelson, RT-McGovern/Bivin
There are a ton of practice reps to be taken and a handful of other young candidates who can change projections beginning with the start of spring drills on March 16.