Notre Dame entered the 2016 season with a combined 27 starts among tackles Mike McGlinchey and Alex Bars, guards Quenton Nelson and Colin McGovern, and center Sam Mustipher.
McGovern decided to use his fifth year of eligibility at Virginia this year, but the return of McGlinchey, Nelson, Bars and Mustipher – each of whom started all 12 games in 2016 – raises Notre Dame’s total starts along the offensive line to 76 heading into the 2017 season.
The left side of the Irish offensive line, comprised of McGlinchey and Nelson, will enter the 2017 season as one of the top duos in the country.
McGlinchey ruled out bypassing his final year of eligibility to return for a fifth year while Nelson submitted his credentials to the NFL draft board, which projected a second-round grade. Nelson returns to Notre Dame with two years of eligibility, but almost undoubtedly will move on the NFL after the 2017 season.
Both will be among the nation’s most highly-regarded draft prospects at their respective positions.
The loss of McGovern (eight starts), as well as the departure of fifth-year senior Mark Harrell – who started the last two games of the ’16 season – likely will force a first-time starter along the offensive line in the opener against Temple.
Notre Dame rushed for 163.3 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry in ’16 – a drop of 44.3 yards per outing and 1.1 yards per attempt. The Irish allowed 28 sacks of quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.
OFFENSIVE LINE OPTIONS
Hunter Bivin returns for a fifth year after starting one game (Stanford) in ’16. But red-shirt sophomore center/guard Tristen Hoge and highly-regarded red-shirt freshmen Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer are the top three candidates competing for the open slot.
Hoge figures to get first crack at a starting interior line position. Bars is a candidate to move from right tackle to right guard, which is a better fit for his skillset and would open up competition for the right tackle position. Red-shirt sophomore Trevor Ruhland also could be a factor at guard.
Red-shirt freshman Parker Boudreaux, a guard, brings a blue-collar disposition to the equation, but likely is at least a year away from truly competing for a starting spot. Red-shirt junior Jimmy Byrne has yet to make a serious run for playing time at guard.
Early-entry freshmen Robert Hainsey (guard) and Aaron Banks (tackle/guard) will get a jump on August-arriving classmates Josh Lugg (tackle) and Dillan Gibbons (guard).
McGlinchey, Nelson and Mustipher are likely to remain at left tackle, left guard and center respectively. If offensive line coach Harry Hiestand leans toward the least disruptive alignment from ’16, Bars will remain at right tackle with Hoge sliding into the right guard position, which he competed for in the pre-season and throughout the ’16 campaign.
But Bars fits the right guard position with his size and power-blocking skills. Brian Kelly offered a glowing report on Eichenberg late in the 2016 season, which lends itself to strong consideration at right tackle if Hiestand decides to shift Bars to the interior. Kraemer should start on equal footing with Eichenberg this spring.
Once positions are settled – which likely won’t happen until the fall – this will be a better-equipped unit than the relatively inexperienced corps that began the 2016 season.