In the line of fire, Notre Dame OT Tommy Kraemer will be tested early

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Tommy Kraemer’s college debut Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium has all the trappings of a blind date, with the hopes that from the outside looking in it will look nothing like that.

The last time ND’s new starting right tackle lined up against someone other than an Irish teammate was roughly 22 months ago in an Ohio Division I state quarterfinal playoff loss to Cincinnati Colerain High School.

Temple, Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent (3:30 EDT; NBC), like Notre Dame, is one of 24 FBS teams in 2017 unveiling new coordinators on both sides of the ball. New Owls head coach Geoff Collins has opted to add a layer of ambiguity by declining to list who his projected starters will be, in the form of a formal depth chart.

“I think Tommy Kraemer needs to worry about Tommy Kraemer and play within himself and stop getting all worked up about things that are out of his control,” Irish grad senior left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey offered of the 6-foot-6, 314-pound redshirt freshman, less than a week from his college playing debut.

“It’s the same things I dealt with when I was his age.”

Sam Young can certainly relate as well.

The now eight-year NFL veteran and current Miami Dolphins offensive tackle, back in 2006, walked into a very similar situation as Kraemer will be Saturday.

Left tackle Ryan Harris, left guard Dan Santucci and center John Sullivan were all returning from a strong 2005 offensive line unit, with right guard Dan Stevenson and Mark LeVoir moving on to the NFL. All but LeVoir were eventually drafted, and all five at least dabbled in the pros for multiple seasons.

Veteran Bob Morton won the right guard spot in 2006, with Young, a true freshman, claiming right tackle on a team ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP poll.

In 2017, McGlinchey, left guard Quenton Nelson and center Sam Mustipher returned to their 2016 starting spots, with last year’s starting right tackle, senior Alex Bars, shifting to right guard. Kraemer emerged from a three-man battle with freshman Robert Hainsey and fellow redshirt freshman Liam Eichenberg at right tackle.

“I think Tommy is walking into a great dynamic,” Young said in a phone interview. “Having a group that is established creates a standard. And looking back, that’s the one thing I remember for myself was wanting to live up to that standard — not so much about not letting the other guys down as much as being part of what makes it work.

“You have these guys with all this experience. I know, for myself, Ryan Harris was a tremendous mentor for me in terms of, ‘Here’s some things to expect.’ And I think that helped me grow faster than maybe otherwise I would have, just because I had those veteran guys to lean on in mentorship roles.”

McGlinchey, whose playing career started at right tackle two seasons ago, figures to fill that role for Kraemer.

“The preparation that we do each and every week is going to prepare Tommy to be fine,” McGlinchey said. “I think Saturdays (game days) are easier. The way our team practices and the way our coaches coach, there’s a lot less stress on Saturdays, because you’re so prepared and so ready to play that there’s a lot less to worry about.”

Still, it’s not easy, even for a player with the pedigree of Kraemer, or Young from that matter.

Both played for national prep powers before arriving at Notre Dame — Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas for Young, Cincinnati Elder for Kraemer. Both were the top rated offensive prospect, per Rivals.com, regardless of position in their respective ND recruiting classes.

Young, however, was tested more than any other lineman on the Irish team early and often in 2006, and the same figures to be the case for Kraemer, because of the experience factor.

“Run-blocking, pass-blocking, a thicker playbook — all of them were big adjustments for me,” Young said. “But the biggest was probably the number of plays I had to remember and the nuances that went with every one of them.

“I went from 20 plays in high school to at least five times that many with Charlie Weis’ offense. So what you have to do is adjust and grow every week. It’s just consistently trying to become a master of your craft. And really, that process never ends.”

Collectively, Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chip Long have so much confidence in a renaissance season for the line — after ND ranked 80th nationally in run offense in 2016 and 85th in sacks allowed — that their formation variety and play-calling actually reflect that.

For instance, for the first time in the Kelly Era, the Irish plan to put their quarterback under center and play with a pseudo-fullback in some short-yardage and goal-line situations.

“We think we’ve got an offensive line and tight ends that we can get our quarterback under center and exert our will and pound that football in there,” Kelly said. “There’s not a lot of offensive lines that can do that.”

Notre Dame’s opponents will test Kelly’s assertion early and often.

Nine of ND’s 12 2017 opponents ranked in the top 40 last season in run defense. And only two — North Carolina and Navy — stood lower than 51st.

As far as pass rush, five of ND’s 12 opponents ranked in top 25 nationally in sacks in 2016, with two such opponents in the first three weeks (Temple and Boston College). In week three, the Irish will face the 2016 NCAA leader in sacks, BC defensive end Harold Landry, who with 16.5 last season had 2.5 more than the Irish amassed as an entire team.

Kraemer’s strength through spring practice and fall training camp has been mauling in the run game. His steepest growth curve has been in the area of pass-blocking.

“He’s only a freshman, a redshirt freshman,” Kelly said. “I think he’s doing great. He’s got some things he has to work on, but Mike McGlinchey does too. I’m pleased with Tom. He’s got some really fine traits. He’s physical. He’s big.

“He’s a good player, and we just need to have his great traits flash a little bit more, and they’re getting there.”

The quarterback can certainly affect how that plays out, moving protections pre-snap and checking out of bad plays. And that’s the part of first-year starter Brandon Wimbush’s game that is still an unknown.

What apparent is the buy-in that the change in the strength-and-conditioning program, now headed up by Matt Balis, is going to supersede any potential growing pains — with Kraemer or anybody else.

“I think you guys can all notice guys across the board on our team looks different,” McGlinchey said. “They’re playing different. And they feel different. And it’s given them a little bit of an edge out there. It lets guys have a little more confidence in what they do.”

Notre Dame right offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer (78) is set to make his college debut Saturday against Temple. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)