Analysis: Notre Dame football future hinges on offensive line
Brian Kelly sounded like a man trying to settle on an unhappy medium as Saturday night veered toward early Sunday morning at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The fifth-year Notre Dame head football coach actually was teeming with elation about his team’s ability to quash adversity in a 30-14 pull-away from four-touchdown underdog Purdue. But he wasn’t willing to spin it and sell it as a season-transforming victory.
The Irish nearly ran out of safeties and slot receivers but surged for 20 unanswered points once all the missing pieces started to accumulate. Kelly was well aware some of the obstacles that his now ninth-ranked Irish had to overcome in Indianapolis were self-inflicted.
“Quite frankly, it's an opportunity for us now to critically evaluate where we are and what we need to do to get better,” Kelly said in the moments after the Irish became just the third ND squad in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present) to start 3-0.
And that’s what strong coaches and programs do. They put their energy into coaxing their teams to evolve, rather than defending the team’s shortcomings with rhetoric.
So as Notre Dame starts to sprinkle into new projections as a potential Jan. 1/Dec. 31 major bowl candidate, the outside world asks, is this Irish team, one of 34 unbeatens remaining in the FBS, really a top-10 team? Internally, Kelly asks his staff and players how do they get better?
The answer to both questions starts in the same place. The offensive line.
Both pulsating potential and pungent disappointment in the current state of affairs make this a wait-and-see proposition.
“We're not sustaining,” Kelly said. “I mean, we're in position. We're falling off a block here. We miss a fit here. And maybe it's just the continuity took us a little bit longer. It's nothing big, but it's everything.”
It’s ironic because in August training camp, the offensive line seemed like the one area of the team that was regression-proof.
It has almost a glut of talent, depth and options, and it continues to be the first position group to take the field at practice each day and the last one to leave it.
But late Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the line yielded four sacks to Purdue and labored in the running game for a second-straight week, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand met to kick around whether they needed to stand pat and push through the growing pains or reconfigure the starting five.
“Maybe one other player, (Mike) McGlinchey, would be involved in that conversation,” Kelly said Sunday. “But, quite frankly, we've got to find a little bit more push inside, and that's what we're going to try to come up with. So we're in the process right now of kind of sorting that out ourselves.”
McGlinchey is an uber-athletic 6-foot-8, 310-pound sophomore offensive tackle from Philadelphia who may have the highest ceiling of any Irish offensive lineman. He worked with the first-team offense for much of the spring.
But over the summer, two left guards surged – seniors Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty — and Hiestand/Kelly plugged Hanratty into the starting five and pushed left guard Steve Elmer out to right tackle and McGlinchey to a reserve role.
Tackle was the position for which Elmer had been recruited, but his transition back there has been choppy. Conversely, he and starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley enjoyed strong chemistry playing side by side last season on the right side.
“I think you could look at it one of two ways,” Kelly said. “One, ‘Let's hang in there and let (Elmer) continue to work through a new position;’ or, two, ‘He's much more comfortable at guard.’
“We're going to have to come to that decision here, and so that's really where we need to sit down. We're going to evaluate where we are after three weeks, because we have to get better. We know we've got some good players. We have to figure out whether we have them all in the right place.”
The offensive line, though the most prominent and perplexing, isn’t the only factor in whether the Irish can project as a top-10 team come early December, when the selection committee not only places four teams into the first-ever college football playoff, but eight others in the Peach, Cotton, Fiesta and Orange bowls.
Here are the ones to watch as Notre Dame finishes the month with a night game against Syracuse (2-0) at East Rutherford, N.J., on Sept. 27, then gets into the gristle of its schedule in October with back-to-back-to-back games with Stanford, North Carolina and defending national champion Florida State:
So far, the first-year defensive coordinator has delivered three markedly different game plans in three weeks, making it difficult for opposing offensive coordinators to get a feel for how to consistently attack the young Irish defense.
Notre Dame has yielded 31 points in the first three games, one point off the pace of the 2012 National Championship finalists, who finished second nationally in scoring defense that season.
The defensive rankings, almost across the board, are better than the ND offense’s, and in many cases markedly so. In the big four – rushing, pass-efficiency, total and scoring defense — the Irish are 25th, 54th, 25th and fourth. (Offensively, they’re 70-51-70-46).
The caveat is that with more film, will teams figure out ND’s weaknesses and exploit them? The counter-thought is will it matter for more than a half?
VanGorder has been very good on his feet in the course of the games. Against Purdue, Notre Dame limited the Boilermakers to 160 yards on 49 plays (or 3.27 yards per play) over the final 10 drives of the game.
More to the point, Notre Dame has allowed only seven points combined in the second half of its first three games, and that was a late TD pass against the Irish reserves, even Rice coach David Bailiff considered kind of fluky.
The road ahead
Here’s how the Sagarin computer rankings see Notre Dame and all 12 of its opponents, past and future: 7. Florida State, 12. Notre Dame, 19. USC, 20. Stanford, 29. Arizona State, 30. Syracuse. 32. Louisville, 36. North Carolina, 49. Michigan, 54. Northwestern, 63. Navy, 79. Rice and 118. Purdue.
However, sometimes ratings aren’t as useful as matchups. Now, national rankings are skewed this time of year, sometimes badly, but as it stands the Irish defense would face only one top 40 offense the balance of the season.
That team, Arizona State (19th in total offense), just lost quarterback Taylor Kelly to a foot injury, though early projections have him returning in October, well before the teams meet Nov. 8 in Tempe, Ariz.
Florida State is just lurking beyond the top 40, at No. 41, and figures to have much more firepower on both sides of the ball than the Seminoles have shown in wins over Oklahoma State and The Citadel.
For comparison’s sake the 2012 ND defense faced only two top 40 offenses before taking on Alabama (31st in total offense) for the BCS National Championship. But the Irish held those two — Miami (No. 37) to three points and Oklahoma (12th) to 13. Alabama faced only three such teams on its way to the title game.
As for ND’s offensive line, reconfigured or otherwise, being tested by an elite pass rush, the Irish won’t have to wait long.
Syracuse is fifth nationally in sacks by, having accumulated those numbers in wins over Central Michigan and FCS member Villanova. The Orange take on Maryland on Saturday while ND takes a bye week.
But the Orange are the only Irish future opponent ranked higher than 50th in sacks by. Florida State is a shocking 120th out of 125 teams measured as fully fledged FBS members in 2014.
The Frozen Five
The Purdue game was the first this season where you could feel the absence of the three suspended starters — cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels — and even backup safety Eilar Hardy.
Graduate student Kendall Moore, a backup linebacker, is the fifth player being held out of practices and games while the Notre Dame internal academic fraud investigation process continues.
Kelly said Sunday that as of Friday none of the players have had their hearings before an honesty committee, more than two weeks after the investigative phase was supposed to have concluded.
There’s no guarantee the Irish will get any of the five back, and if they do, they will be in football shape, as they have been constantly working out with director of strength and conditioning for football, Paul Longo.
But all but Hardy haven’t practiced or attended team meetings since Aug. 15 (Hardy since Aug. 28). So with each passing day, getting them reintegrated and up to game speed mentally becomes a bigger challenge.
The best position switch of the Kelly Era to date, though closely rivaled by Russell’s flip from running back to corner, Smith moving inside to weakside linebacker from the perimeter has made him a trump card on defense that VanGorder has just begun exploring.
“Brian mixed it up well tonight,” Kelly said of VanGorder and the Purdue game plan. “I thought when we got into the fourth down situations, we dialed it up. Jaylon this week is part of those pressures. He has not been.
“We've had him focused on that job. That inside ‘backer position has been a whole new thing for him. So we didn't want to put too much on him. But this week we really worked on a pressure package with him and were able to get it installed with him in this game.”
It’s only the beginning.