By most reasonable measures, Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are having good seasons.
The left tackle and left guard both look the part of Harry Hiestand’s next future pros. McGlinchey was the program’s most obvious captain pick last month. And if he’s not the roster’s most imposing figure, it’s Nelson to his right.
Make no mistake, these 635 pounds of snarl have been solid.
But good is not good enough.
“I thought I’ve been OK. Not great, but OK,” McGlinchey said. “I’m not where I want to be.”
Before parsing their games, consider this line is the least experienced of the Brian Kelly era by a wide margin. It opened the year with just 27 combined career starts. The Irish had averaged 60 career starts returning on Kelly’s previous six lines. And Notre Dame would have basically been there if not for Steve Elmer’s retirement, which removed 30 starts from the lineup.
That meant Notre Dame had only McGlinchey and Nelson back, with McGlinchey switching from right tackle to left. There he had to replace Ronnie Stanley, who had replaced Zack Martin.
“It was a challenge at first … because I'm not up here playing left tackle to fill the shoes of Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin,” McGlinchey said. “If I try to do that, it's probably not going to work out for me too well. So those guys were special players and I'm going to be hopefully a special player in my own right.
“But I can't focus on the expectations that are put on me because of the first two guys that have been here before me. Obviously there is an expectation when you're the veteran and the captain and you have to know your job at all times and perform at the highest level. That's what I'm trying to do each and every week.”
Notre Dame’s run game has been fine, averaging 6.98 yards per carry with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). Two tight end sets, usually run inside the 10-yard line, have struggled at 2.61 yards per carry, but Irish tight ends haven’t helped that cause either.
With few exceptions, when Notre Dame has needed to run behind Nelson and McGlinchey, it has. On top of that, Kizer has been sacked twice all year. He’s also been protected well enough to go 9-of-13 against the blitz with four touchdowns.
Clearly, McGlinchey and Nelson are doing a lot right.
“There are things that they can get better at, and they were much better from Texas to Nevada,” Kelly said. “There was definitely a jump there, and they got better. So I think we expect to see more of the same as we can continue to move forward.”
So maybe McGlinchey isn’t tossing outside linebackers into the stands. And maybe Nelson hasn’t pancaked enough defensive tackles. But maybe some version of those blood lust scenes will come as the entire line catches up.
Center Sam Mustipher, right guard Colin McGovern and right tackle Alex Bars will all make their third starts at those positions this weekend against Michigan State. For Mustipher and McGovern, this represents their first meaningful playing time.
“My expectation?” Nelson said. “To make every block. Haven’t really met my own expectations, but trying to every day, working on my fundamentals. Hopefully that will show this week.”
More experienced Kelly lines have started slow in September before rounding into October form. Two years ago Hiestand reshuffled four linemen in-season after the run game bombed early. That year the Irish averaged 1.74 yards per carry in the blowout of Michigan and 3.66 yards per carry a week later against Purdue.
That’s what a non-functioning offensive line looks like.
This is not.
The Irish have topped 200 yards rushing in both games this season while averaging 4.83 yards per carry. It’s been effective running too considering Tarean Folston, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are 32-of-57 (56.1 percent) in rushing efficiency on their carries. Last year’s C.J. Prosise-Adams combination was 55.6 percent efficient.
Rush efficiency is defined as making 40 percent of the necessary yardage on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third/fourth down.
“We’ve done some good things and we’ve done some things that we didn’t like as well,” McGlinchey said. “It’s just going to keep growing each and every day at practice and getting that experience each and every week.”
The next experience comes Saturday night. Odds are the Irish line will be better for it.