Alex Bars an answer to Notre Dame OL puzzle

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Filling three holes along the Notre Dame football team’s offensive line can be a monumental challenge.

Having the right pieces available can help accelerate the process.

Alex Bars is one of those pieces. A big piece. At 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, he’s – physically, at least – seems to be a proper fit to fill the void at right tackle.

Now that he looks the part, he has until Sept. 4 to prove he can play like he belongs.

When Mike McGlinchey was moved from the right tackle spot that he owned last season to the big-money – high risk, high reward – left tackle position replacing Ronnie Stanley, Bars was a logical choice to join the equation.

A junior (who didn’t play as a freshman) from Nashville, Bars already knew what competition was about. Last year he battled with Quenton Nelson for the starting left guard role. He lost. That didn’t mean he wasn’t a factor.

Bars backed up Nelson early in the season. When Nelson went down with an injury in the Clemson game, Bars got the call with the first unit. He finished the game in the hurricane, then started against Navy and Southern Cal, but was lost for the season after sustaining a broken left ankle against the Trojans.

“It was kinda crazy, thrown in the Clemson rain; it was fun,” Bars said. “It was great to get out there; great atmosphere, great (defensive) line.

“Taking that into this year is huge for me.”

That experience is helping Bars transition from guard to tackle this spring. It’s definitely a different vantage point.

“(The game looks) pretty different (at tackle compared to guard),” Bars said. “You’re always scanning at tackle; reading defenses; different looks that are thrown at you. It’s a little different than at guard.

“You have to be able to recognize different looks, something you don’t have to do at guard.”

“He’s going against guys who are big, physical and fast – one-on-one – a lot more (than he did at guard),” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “You’re on an island a lot more (at tackle).

“From the perspective that he has, he’s probably articulating that he doesn’t get as much help. He’s starting to sense how much of that falls on his shoulders.

“Getting adjusted to that, and being technically sound in everything he does on a play-by-play basis, is a lot for a young player. He’s got the physical ability to do it. Now it’s just technique, assignments, and being consistent.”

During a scrimmage situation in Saturday’s practice, which was open to the media, Bars was tested from multiple directions.

First it was speedy outside linebacker James Onwualu testing the edge and slipping past Bars as quarterback DeShone Kizer was releasing a deep ball. Then, end Isaac Rochell bull-rushed Bars, pushing him into QB Malik Zaire. Just for diversity sake, safety Drue Tranquill came on a blitz, forcing Bars to choose between Rochell and Tranquill as the guy to pick up.

“I understand a lot more (this year compared to last),” Bars said. “I learned a ton that I’ve been able to take into this year.”

Having three games with extensive playing time is something that can’t be replaced. Understanding how to function with the bright lights on is a big part of establishing himself as a trusted piece of the line.

“(Last year’s action) has helped his confidence,” Kelly said. “He’s got confidence in his ability to go out there and compete against anybody.

“Now, it’s handling that position, which is a different look. That’s probably the biggest thing for him.”

The biggest challenge for the Irish line is to come out of the spring with a cohesive unit. McGlinchey and Nelson are solid on the left side, Sam Mustipher is entrenched at center and Bars seems settled at right tackle. Only right guard is still iffy. Once the pieces are in place, the chemistry can happen.

“We know the standard,” Bars said. “We’re coming together as a group. (Chemistry) is huge.

“Knowing the guy next to you and trusting him is so important. Being in the right place at the right time is huge for us, so chemistry on the offensive line is key.

“(The chemistry) is pretty good. We all know each other. We’re all good friends. It’s pretty good. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re working toward it.”

Find the fit and make it work.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Alex Bars (71) and Hunter Bivin (70) wait for a drill to start at practice, Saturday, April 9, 2016 inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. (Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)