The six-season Brian Kelly Era has consistently benefitted from quality center play with three-year starter Braxston Cave and his successor, two-year starter Nick Martin (plus a 2014 smattering of Matt Hegarty) providing leadership from the pivot position since the head coach’s arrival on campus for the 2010 season.
That role for 2016 appears to belong to Sam Mustipher, both for upcoming campaign and, if all goes well, for the foreseeable future. Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Mustipher, a junior center with three seasons of remaining eligibility in South Bend.
Mustipher excels throughout training camp, cementing the starting position immediately and anchoring an offensive line that paves the way for the best rushing season in South Bend since offensive line guru Joe Moore was fired following the 1996 season.
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s unit will be hard-pressed to improve upon its outstanding pass protection efforts of 2015 but the Notre Dame running game – three deep at quarterback and running back alike – has a chance to post its most consistent season since the aforementioned Lou Holtz era.
That won’t happen if Mustipher and the man to his right, fellow first-time starter Hunter Bivin, don’t consistently execute their inside and outside zone assignments.
Mustipher muddles through training camp – or worse, September – opening the door for competition with redshirt-freshman Tristen Hoge. As much as head coach Brian Kelly and Hiestand crave and foster competition in camp, Notre Dame’s new-look line needs consistency, and a third-year player such as Mustipher is needed to provide the latter as the line’s new pivot man.
In terms of playing time and Year 3 expectations, look no further than the aforementioned Cave, a player that likewise redshirted as a freshman (albeit due to injury), worked as a reserve as a sophomore, then entered the lineup as a starting center for his 2010 junior (redshirt-sophomore) campaign.
Save for a November 2011 lost to injury (he was replaced by Mike Golic, Jr., in the middle), Cave held down the role for the next three seasons, peaking as a third-team All-America selection as a graduate student in 2012.
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
Mustipher was ranked as the nation’s ninth-best guard prospect and No. 134 player overall in the 2014 Scout.com 300. At present, his projected development as a starting center in Year 3 is in direct alignment with what is expected of a four-star offensive line prospect in the college game, especially at a deep program such as Notre Dame.
MUSTIPHER AT HIS BEST
Mustipher played in nine games last season after redshirting in 2014. His first taste of competition with a game in doubt will coincide with Notre Dame’s first offensive snap at Texas on September 4.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“Sam is kind of your classic center body type but combined with the intelligence and understanding of football, we knew he would eventually be very good there. He’s progressed very well and that’s what he’s been working on for the last two years – not as much guard, heavy in the center.” – Offensive Line coach Harry Hiestand