Notebook: Stout Michigan State defensive line schools reshuffled Notre Dame front

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Quenton Nelson’s offseason physique makeover, from burly to chiseled, apparently boiled down to a very simple concept.

“No bread,” the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Notre Dame junior offensive guard shared earlier this week.

If only dealing with Michigan State nose tackle Malik McDowell Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium was as uncomplicated. Or trying to advance chemistry on an Irish offensive line in which Nelson is the only one of the five lining up in the same spot he did last season.

No. 18-ranked Notre Dame’s first meeting with rival 12th-ranked Michigan State since 2013 was the Irish offensive line’s first real litmus test of whether its 2016 prowess was more results or reputation.

Early on, the interior of ND’s offensive line was holding its own against McDowell, a junior projected to go in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft if he declares for it and probably the best defensive lineman the Irish will face this season. But the Irish line’s growing pains were in full glory in the second half.

Nelson and senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, both underclassmen by NFL measures, are gleaning first-round buzz from some analysts for the 2017 NFL Draft as well.

Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s recruiting and track record of development also elevated expectations for the Irish front.

But chemistry isn’t a given, nor is it something that’s microwavable.

“Offensive line play in a nutshell is a position that, on every single play, it requires me to work in conjunction with one of my teammates,” said former Irish All-America offensive lineman and current CBS college football analyst Aaron Taylor, in trying to explain in general terms the challenge of a unit congealing.

“I either have to physically communicate or verbally communicate with them on a down-by-down basis. So any combination block, the center determining the (middle linebacker), all of those things are variables that most other positions don’t have to necessarily account for.”

McDowell makes the formula harder, because the 6-foot-6, 276-pounder lines up all over the defensive line, including on the edge at times to pass rush. Game experience helps the offensive line build the necessary chemistry, and also exposes weaknesses.

And the Irish got doses of both against the Spartans on Saturday night.

“It’s like twins finishing each other’s sentences. That’s how it is with good offensive line play,” Taylor said. “I knew where (teammate) Tim Ruddy was going to be. And I knew he would be there.

“And he knew when I needed to leave early. And if he didn’t, there were things in body language where you communicate just like a receiver looking out on the outside edge. Just the way he looks at the QB, it’s like, ‘Let’s take ‘em deep.”

“Those are the non-verbal collaborative communication skills that are more popular and more pronounced that take place every single play that the common fan has not idea that’s going on. It’s the consummate team position in the consummate team game. You have five playing as one.

“If all five do that, great things happen, If four do it and one breaks down, you get a sack. No other position is like that. We are a position that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the beauty and the magic when it’s done well.”

Reason to celebrate?

Cornerback Shaun Crawford appeared upbeat when he took to Twitter on Friday, a day after undergoing surgery on his torn left Achilles’ tendon, an injury that ended his season less than two games into it.

“When going through tough times, you look for people to lean on,” he posted. “Here at Notre Dame, after my SUCCESSFUL surgery, I didn’t need to look far.

“Family, coaches, teammates and friends all showed love, visiting me after the surgery. The injury won’t define me. It will only make me a better person on and off the field.

My faith won’t fail me now. It will only grow, because I know God has something special in store for me. In the meantime I’m cheering for Team 12.”

There had been speculation that Crawford injured the leg celebrating a pass breakup last Saturday against Nevada, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly was emphatic that it actually happened on the play itself.

“He actually put his foot down in the ground,” Kelly said, “and when he twisted, he is such a great athlete, most people would have broken their ankle. But he was able to really plant his foot and turn, and he turned at such an angle on his foot that the torque just tore the Achilles tendon.

“It’s just when he got up, he never felt it. He jumped, came back down. And then when he took a step is when he felt it. The injury occurred when he torqued himself around to make a play on the ball.”

Looking out for No. 1

Sophomore running back Josh Adams earned the distinction of wearing the No. 1 jersey Saturday night, a rotating honor given to the player that best exemplifies Notre Dame’s ideals on and off the field.

Adams came into the game with a 7.1 yards-per-carry average, the second best career mark in school history.

The most prolific freshman rusher in school history, blipped past the career 1,000-yard rushing mark in the first quarter, becoming the fastest Irish back (16th game) to do so since Darius Walker in 2005 (14th game).

By the numbers

• Quarterback DeShone Kizer’s 14-yard TD run in the first quarter gave him rushing touchdown in his last five games, dating back to the 2015 season, and eight of his last nine.

It was his 13th career rushing TD.

• The first-quarter Irish scoring drive of 91 yards was its longest of the season.

• Tyler Newsome’s 71-yard punt in the second quarter was the 11th punt of 70 yards or more in school history and the longest by an Irish punter since Hunter Smith’s 79-yarder in 1998 against Arizona State.

Notre Dame’s Josh Adams (33) leaps over tacklers during the Notre Dame-Michigan State NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA