HOGE AND THE INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE
Two spots remain up for grabs along Notre Dame’s offensive line – center and right guard.
Heading into fall camp, junior Sam Mustipher was working with the No. 1 unit at center and senior Hunter Bivin was listed as the top right guard.
We were reminded by a member of the Notre Dame support staff last week, however, that line coach Harry Hiestand had not christened Mustipher as the man at center while head coach Brian Kelly had made comments since the spring indicating that Mustipher had solidified his hold on the position.
That’s not to say that Hiestand holds all the authority over who starts at center. But as it often is with offensive line coaches, their opinion carries a bit more weight than most assistants.
Former Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Moore would have balked – openly -- if Lou Holtz had declared his starting lineup up front without first receiving Moore’s approval.
It’s an offensive line/offensive line coach thing.
Continuing to push for playing time is sophomore Tristen Hoge, who has worked at center and guard and remains one of the most intriguing figures up front.
Hoge, who preserved a year of eligibility in 2015, is a youngster. He has yet to take a live snap on the collegiate level. But Hoge made Hiestand hesitant to christen Mustipher or Bivin, in part due to the push from the Pocatello, Idaho product.
Listed at 6-foot-4½, 310 pounds, Hoge doesn’t look that big. But there’s a degree of tenacity there that obviously intrigues Hiestand. Hiestand also must be thinking that if he can get Hoge on the field to gain some experience, he’ll likely take off.
Mustipher has a nose-to-the-grindstone approach as well, and Bivin has been in the program since the 2013 season. It could remain status quo and the frontrunners from the spring could carry over to the fall.
But there’s a hesitancy here, and it likely has more to do with Hoge and his upside than it does the shortcomings of Mustipher and Bivin, although Bivin never threatened to take the job held by Steve Elmer during his three years with the Irish program.
It could come down to this: Who are the two best offensive linemen among Mustipher, Bivin and Hoge? If it’s Mustipher and Hoge, Hoge plays right guard. If it’s Bivin and Hoge, Hoge plays center.
Speaking of Elmer, yeah, he could be inconsistent at times. But the Irish will miss the plow-horse run-blocking skills of Elmer.
It’s going to get very interesting today, Thursday, Aug. 11, when the Irish hold their first session at the LaBar Practice Complex – their first of the pre-season since their return from the Culver (Ind.) Academies.
We know what to expect of Torii Hunter, Jr., who looks primed for a 75-catch 2016 campaign from the X position. Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar are the pass catchers from the tight end (Y) spot with Tyler Luatua showing much more athleticism now that he’s 250 pounds.
At W and Z, it’s an all-out battle for playing time with sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders in the top spots when the media left Culver last Saturday afternoon.
Both fit their positions well. St. Brown is a long (6-foot-4), agile, athletic sophomore who impressed the coaching staff from the outset last year. He caught just one pass in ’15, but his touchdown return of a blocked punt against USC was a significant play early in the contest when the Irish jumped to a 21-10 first-quarter lead.
Shoulder issues have slowed him, both in the fall when he missed the last six games of the year and this spring. Kelly has talked at various points of his inconsistency catching the football and running routes.
The personnel at the W position is fascinating. Head coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and receivers coach Mike Denbrock have taken much of the long, young talent and thrown it all at the W position.
Now let’s see what sticks.
Sophomore Miles Boykin and freshmen Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley have been competing at the spot with St. Brown. Boykin preserved a year in ‘15, so all three enter the 2016 campaign with four years of eligibility.
The staff is looking for consistency from Boykin and probably a bit more burst. Claypool looked like a gazelle on some of Notre Dame’s Camp Culver video. McKinley is a solid, well-put-together receiver who wasn’t carrying himself like a freshman last Saturday.
It’s also interesting to note that early-entry freshman Kevin Stepherson was working with Sanders at Z last weekend while Corey Holmes was aligned behind Hunter at X, which is potentially a Bermuda Triangle-like spot with Hunter on the verge of stardom.
Sanders has the perfect dimensions for a Z. He has the potential to be a real matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties. Stepherson, the slightly-built rookie, is an intriguing option. He’s got some of the best hands on the team and certainly would get more reps sharing the position with Sanders than he would behind Hunter at X.
The wideout positions will be among some of the most scrutinized areas on the field Thursday when we return to LaBar.
If the wide receiver positions are the most wide-open on offense, the linebacker corps is the equivalent on the defensive side of the ball.
While in Culver, we saw red-shirt freshman Asmar Bilal take the No. 1 reps at Will linebacker next to Nyles Morgan with James Onwualu at the Sam. Earlier this week, it appeared sophomore Te’von Coney took some No. 1 snaps at Will.
Question: If 6-foot-0 Joe Schmidt had to be on the field for Brian VanGorder the last two seasons as the brains of the operation, why does that not apply to 6-foot-2½, 240-pound junior Greer Martini, who played a key role against Navy’s triple-option attack during his freshman season?
Martini’s career-high for tackles in a game is nine versus Navy in both 2014 and 2015. He also had eight stops against Georgia Tech’s option attack a year ago.
That’s not to say that Bilal and Coney don’t understand the overall big picture of the Irish defense, but they haven’t proven it in a game. If Martini was sharp enough to handle triple-option at an early age, how is he not ready as a junior to take over a starting role as opposed to backing up Onwualu? Linebackers coach Mike Elston did not speak of Bilal in the spring as a guy who had the nuances of the defense down pat.
Martini has shown a tremendous nose for the football in multiple situations. In addition to his fine work against option-based offenses, he had eight stops in a backup role against UMass last year and a combined 10 tackles in November against Wake Forest, Boston College and Stanford, including a couple of stops behind the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal.
Going back to his freshman year when a banged up Notre Dame defense limped into November, Martini had five stops each against Northwestern and USC.
Using tackle totals as hard evidence of defensive productivity can be deceiving. In a game of 11-on-11, others can create tackles for teammates. But Martini has shown a strong penchant for a) knowing the defense and b) being productive. That’s what Schmidt did, and you couldn’t get him off the field. Why doesn’t the same thing apply to Martini?
And before you stereotype and say that Martini is not as athletic as Bilal and Coney, that notion has been disputed by a former prominent member of the Notre Dame football team, calling Martini the best all-around linebacker returning to the 2016 team.
Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field ahead of Schmidt despite Morgan’s decided physical advantage. Even if Bilal and Coney were definitely better athletes than Martini, why would that trump Martini when that approach was stubbornly taken with Schmidt in 2014-15? How is Martini’s background of productivity not valuable on a defense that lost Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Romeo Okwara, Schmidt, KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate?
Perhaps defensive end Grant Blankenship can find a home in Norman where it was announced earlier this week that the Texas native would be transferring to Oklahoma.
It was one steady spiral out of grace for the 6-foot-4¾, 278-pounder who saw his playing time progressively diminish during his two years at Notre Dame.
Word circulated that Blankenship had expectations of immediate playing time during his freshman season in 2014, and he did play in 11 games, finishing with 12 tackles.
But when he packed on pounds for his sophomore season, he lacked the quickness and impact to get on the field, logging brief playing time (three games) and one tackle (vs. Wake Forest) in 2015. His suspension for violation of team rules this spring added to the need for a change of scenery.
The transfer to Oklahoma makes sense when you consider former Notre Dame defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks– now the Sooners’ co-defensive coordinator – recruited Blankenship out of Texas.
Notre Dame is not the right fit for everyone. It wasn’t for Blankenship. Perhaps a new venue can help Blankenship tap into his talent, which never came close to maximization during his time with the Irish.
ENDS AND ODDS
• I’d be retired now if I had a nickel for every time a Notre Dame football player has said over the last 35-years-plus how he’s part of the closest team he’s ever been on. It’s a quote that has been stricken from this reporter’s notebook. You will never see those words written by me because, well, they’re meaningless. Not that a cohesive team doesn’t matter; it does. Rather, players have no perspective on such claims. All teams are close during camp. The setting calls for it.
• Looks like freshman running back Tony Jones, Jr. is still making those tricky swing passes out of the backfield look easy. At the very least, he looks like a weapon in the passing game early in the season.
• Yes, it’s a highlight tape. But has anyone had their hopes rise a bit when seeing some of the highlight clips of Max Redfield coming out of Culver? Careful, don’t get caught in the trap. But damn!
• If Nyles Morgan is even close to as good as he looked Saturday and in subsequent highlight films, the Irish will have a standout in 2016-17.