Numbers game could challenge Irish line

Notre Dame will open training camp with the least experienced offensive line of the Brian Kelly era. And while returning starts often previews performance, Harry Hiestand has reasons to believe it won’t.

Usually this would be a reason for concern.

Notre Dame brings back just 27 starts on the offensive line this season, spread among Mike McGlinchey (14), Quenton Nelson (11) and Alex Bars (2). It’s the low mark of the Brian Kelly era, although it wouldn’t be if Steve Elmer’s 30 career starts had not retired from football.
The Irish must replace three starters, with Bars (right tackle), Hunter Bivin (right guard) and Sam Mustipher (center) the new crew when training camp opens in August. All three are former four-star recruits. It’s the same story with McGlinchey and Nelson, who have been so good they’re seemingly on track for the NFL already.

So while Notre Dame doesn’t have much experience coming back on the offensive line, it has talent to mold and an NFL caliber offensive line coach to do it in Harry Hiestand.

However, there’s no question the Irish line will need to develop during the season more than some of Hiestand’s recent groups.

To understand how inexperienced Notre Dame’s line will be, compare it to the rest of the schedule. Only Army (26) and Navy (6) bring back fewer starts on their lines. Meanwhile, USC ranks among the country’s most veteran fronts with 128 combined starts returning. That would have ranked second nationally going into last season, according to Phil Steele.

On the Irish schedule, Virginia Tech’s line slotted second with 94 returning starts, followed by Miami (76), Nevada (59) and Texas (49). However, the Trojans, Hokies, Hurricanes and Longhorns all have new offensive line coaches this year, with only Texas having the same head coach from last season.

That staff turnover might minimize the experience edge of those lines, but it’s worth wondering if line experience matters as much as it might seem. That is at least if a program has recruited well annually, which Notre Dame has managed the past five years.

Consider last year’s playoff teams. Yes, Michigan State brought back 90 combined starts on the line, which ranked 20th nationally and third in the Big 10 (Indiana and Purdue ranked first and second, by the way).  But the three teams that actually scored points in the College Football Playoff were way down that list.

Alabama returned 40 starts, Clemson brought back 30 and Oklahoma returned just 28. That meant the Tide ranked 112th, the Tigers slotted 118th and the Sooners were 120th in returning line starts nationally.  

Yet those teams finished a combined 39-4 with three conference titles and one national title. All three had line coaches who were in at least their third year with their programs. In other words, when good talent meets better coaching, inexperience doesn’t need to mean everything.

That’s the outlook shared by Hiestand, at least for this year. Because next summer Notre Dame could return all five starters on its offensive line, which could mean 92 careers starts coming back.

Until then the Irish challenge for Hiestand is getting his latest line to play like a group with more Saturday experience than it actually has. As last year showed for a few programs, it’s been done.

Team Starts
USC 128
Virginia Tech 94
Miami 76
Nevada 59
Texas 49
Syracuse 44
Michigan St. 42
Stanford 40
Duke 39
N.C. State 37
Notre Dame 27
Army 26
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