As Alex Bars laid sprawled out on the Notre Dame Stadium turf in the first half of last October’s rivalry game against Southern California, a thought occurred to him.
“If this is an ankle sprain, I’ve got a really low pain tolerance,’” laughed Bars, the 6-foot-6, 320-pound junior out of Nashville.
“I knew it was something a little bit more.”
Bars said he’s never had a sprained ankle before, let alone a broken one. But that was the diagnosis, which put an end to a promising two-game starting streak in place of Quenton Nelson.
When Bars went down with the left ankle injury, Nelson -- still hobbled with a sprained ankle, which is why Bars was in the lineup -- returned to the field and that was the end of Bars’ red-shirt freshman season with the Irish.
“(The diagnosis) was 8-to-10 weeks with no weight on it, so by the time I could get in a boot, I was happy to get out of (the cast),” Bars said.
“It took a little while (this spring) to get my ankle under me and used to running again and movement and the workload. But it’s good now.”
Bars is ahead of the original spring schedule as he is now involved in full contact and will participate in the April 16 Blue-Gold Game. He’ll likely line up at right tackle, where he has received the bulk of his activity after beginning the spring at right guard.
Bars prepped as a left tackle in 2014 and then moved into the left guard slot last season when Nelson went down. Although he’s never played center – “Bring it on!” he says with a laugh – he undoubtedly could do it.
As much as Nelson looks like a sure-fire NFL offensive lineman, Bars may prove to be the most complete, most versatile of Notre Dame’s current corps.
A four-star prospect out of Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Bars is a bit of a rare breed. He has the width and power of an interior offensive lineman, and the length and agility of a tackle.
Bars would be working on his retirement plan by now if he had a nickel for every time he’s been asked which of the offensive line spots is his best position.
He’s come up with a new way to diplomatically dismiss the question.
“No idea. Wherever is wherever,” Bars said.
In other words, his best position is the one he’s currently playing, and from the looks of it, he’s playing right tackle well. During Saturday’s open practice, Bars had the handful-of-a-task battling left defensive end Isaac Rochell, the most established of all of Notre Dame’s returning defenders.
Bars, despite his mammoth size, is an agile, athletic offensive lineman who shows good balance in the open field with the foot-speed to get to the edge against pass rushers, and that’s not even his bread-and-butter.
“I like run blocking,” Bars said. “I like driving my legs and rooting guys out of there, coming off on (line)backers.”
That’s why Bars played guard in his first collegiate action last season. But it’s become clear this spring that he has the versatility to play anywhere along the offensive line and play it effectively.
It’s also become clear where the greatest need is after Mike McGlinchey, the veteran of the returning linemen, moved from right to left tackle.
Brian Kelly has declared the left tackle-left guard-center grouping of McGlinchey, Nelson and Sam Mustipher pretty well established this spring.
Most of the questions have come at right guard and right tackle, where offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has tinkered with a couple of combinations with Bars and senior Hunter Bivin, who looks more like a tackle than a guard.
“I really like where he is now,” said Hiestand of Bars. “Alex has settled in (at tackle).
“For what we need for our team, he definitely needs to play tackle. He’s very good at guard, too. He’s a very flexible guy. But we have to have guys that can protect on the edge at tackle when the game comes down to that.”
Bars’ talent base and a burgeoning confidence now that he’s entering his third year in the program has him thinking more about the minutia than whether he has the ability to compete at a high level, which was still in his mind when he drew those two starting assignments against Navy and USC last fall.
“Understanding defenses has been huge moving from right guard to right tackle,” Bars said. “Really knowing the positions has helped me understand the type of play it is, what’s happening in the backfield and also what’s happening with defenses. I’m getting a good grasp of it.
“Footwork and technique is huge. But once you’ve got that, understanding the defenses is huge, too. It’s a matter of combining those two and being in the right place at the right time.”
When Hiestand takes issue with Bars’ performance, it’s usually an emphasis on moving beyond the previous mistake.
“My focus,” Bars summarized. “(Hiestand) knows I can do a lot better than I do sometimes. (I need to) get jacked up a little bit. When I make a mistake it, I internalize it and get mad at myself.”
But with all the physical tools an offensive lineman could ask for, as well as the intelligence and now the growing confidence in his ability, Bars looks like another in the long line of quality blockers coming out of Notre Dame.
“A lot of the position groups look to the offensive line for strength and direction,” Bars said.
“We set expectations very high last year. We want to exceed those this year. We take it on us to set the tempo and the attitude for the day.”
Add another building block to the formation of Notre Dame’s 2016 offensive line.