Notebook: Lasting realignment? Kraemer, Hainsey feed hopes for Notre Dame's future

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The cornerstone of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s reworked football program template was putting his offensive line front and center and coaxing a new physical, overbearing personality that would, in turn, permeate the entire team.

For 2017 … and beyond.

Notre Dame’s presence among the seven semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, announced Tuesday, and offensive guard Quenton Nelson making the most serious run at the Outland Trophy since Aaron Taylor played for Joe Moore at ND in 1993 are sure-fire signs the formula worked this season.

Now the goal becomes sustainable success, with all eyes on the two first-year contributors who were cast in a time-share at right tackle for AP ninth-ranked Notre Dame (9-2) this season — redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer and true freshman Robert Hainsey.

“(As to) the future, I think the sky’s the limit for the two of them,” said grad senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, the only member of this year’s offensive line with expiring eligibility.

Nelson, ND’s first finalist for the Outland since Taylor and aspiring to be its first winner for the Irish since defensive lineman Ross Browner in 1976, is expected to push away his fifth-year option and join McGlinchey as a first-round draft choice this spring.

The statistical centerpiece of his case to be named college football’s top interior lineman on either side of the ball — 744 snaps this season without allowing a sack or even a quarterback hit. Houston sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver and Oklahoma junior offensive tackle Orlando Brown are the other two finalists.

First, there’s some unfinished business at AP 20th-ranked Stanford (8-3) on Saturday night (8 EST; ABC-TV). The Cardinal offensive line is one of the other six teams still in the running for the Joe Moore Award, awarded to the nation’s top offensive line.

Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Wisconsin comprise the rest of the semifinalists.

The Irish O-Line — which has faced a number of elite edge players this season, including N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb, Wake Forest’s Duke Ejiofor and Boston College’s Harold Landry — gets to mix it up with an elite interior defensive line presence on Saturday night.

Senior nose guard Harrison Phillips (6-4, 295) is Stanford’s leader in tackles (80), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (5.0) — numbers that are better than Oliver’s of Houston. Phillips also has two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick.

“As good as there is in the country,” Kelly said.

B.C.’s Landry had that reputation among defensive ends nationally coming into the Eagles’ game with the Irish, having led the nation in sacks in 2016. He consistently lined up against Kraemer/Hainsey in the 49-20 Irish win and was held to one tackle.

“They've just battled each and every week, and nothing fazes the two of them,” McGlinchey said.

Kelly used them as a tag-team, in part, to bridge into 2018, thus giving ND four offensive linemen with starting experience.

Redshirt freshman Liam Eichenberg, ND’s No. 2 left tackle, and true freshman Josh Lugg, also figure to be in the starting mix — along with holdovers right guard Alex Bars and center Sam Mustipher — as the Irish try to perpetuate the new standard of offensive play.

“Moving forward (to 2018), I think it has a lot to do with other players now that are going to get a chance,” Kelly said. "There’s going to be a lot of competition there."

“I offered my parking spot to Quenton Nelson to try to get him to come back (for 2018),” Kelly joked. “He didn't bite on that, because if we could get him back, then that would change some things.”

Holding steady in CFP rankings

Notre Dame remained No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, revealed Tuesday, still wedged between No. 7 Georgia and No. 9 Ohio State. In fact, the only change in the top 12 came with Miami and Clemson flip-flopping at Nos. 2 and 3.

The Hurricanes are the new No. 2, with the Tigers sliding one spot. Alabama is No. 1, with Oklahoma No. 4.

Stanford, ND’s Saturday opponent, is No. 21. Two résumé-builders for the Irish are USC at No. 11 and Michigan State at No. 16, two teams the Irish beat by a combined 55 points.

Personnel matters

If Equanimeous St. Brown’s progression through concussion protocol hits a snag this week, Kelly said junior Miles Boykin would be in Brown’s starting spot Saturday at Stanford.

For now, ND’s second-leading receiver’s availability against the Cardinal looks promising.

“EQ passed his exertion, physical activity (Monday),” Kelly said. “He is cleared for non-contact practice (Tuesday).”

Should St. Brown (26 catches, 357 yards, 3 TDs) clear Tuesday’s protocol hurdle, he would get limited contact in Wednesday’s practice and full contact on Thursday.

The 6-foot-5, 203-pound junior hit his head on the turf Saturday in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 24-17 home victory over Navy and left the game.

Boykin filled in and collected two receptions for 33 yards, giving him eight for 133 yards and a TD this season.

• Grad senior wide receiver Cam Smith should know midweek whether he’ll be cleared for Stanford.

The transfer from Arizona State has missed six games this season because of injury, the last five in a row because of a hamstring condition.

The former starter had seven of his eight catches in 2017 in the first two weeks of the season.

• Junior running back Dexter Williams leads Notre Dame in yards per carry among his position group at 8.9, but injuries have helped tamp down his opportunities to tag-team with leading rusher Josh Adams.

Heading into the Stanford game, the 5-11, 225-pound junior had 34 carries, the second-fewest among ND’s five running backs and just 10 more than backup QB Ian Books has this season.

“I think he's about as 100 percent as we've had him,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He looked really good (Monday) moving around. I think he's got to play a big role for us on Saturday. We expect him to, and that's the plan going in.”

• Stanford coach David Shaw on Tuesday classified the injury status for nation’s leading rusher Bryce Love as “day to day,” the Bootleg reported. "Not as good as we'd like it to be."

Love has been battling an ankle injury since October. It caused him to miss the Cardinal’s 15-14 win over Oregon State on Oct. 26 and kept him off the field for most of the fourth quarter Saturday in a 17-14 escape of arch-rival Cal.

The 5-10, 196-pound junior has rushed for 172.3 yards per game in 10 games this season and an 8.8 yards-per-carry average, but he has been limited to 101 yards or fewer in two of the past three games.

Backup Cameron Scarlett has run for 352 yards this season and a 4.8 average.

• Stanford starting left tackle Walker Little, a freshman, is listed as doubtful.

No special delivery

The momentum-changing special teams gaffes, which occurred with regularity in 2016, have been rare under special teams coordinator Brian Polian, in his first season of his second tour of duty at Notre Dame.

But there hasn’t been significant statistical progress beyond that. In fact, in five key special teams categories — kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, punt returns, punt coverage and net punting — the Irish have gone backwards in three of them.

The improvements have come in net punting (106th in 2016 to 76th this season) and related category punt coverage (123rd to 91st). But ND has slipped from 28th to 75th in kickoff returns, 95th to 100th in kickoff coverage and 44th to 112th in punt returns.

Saturday’s opponent, Stanford, is a special teams stalwart across the board. Its worst category is put returns at 43rd. The Cardinal is in the top 13 nationally in each of the other four categories.

As far as kickers, Stanford’s Jet Toner is 19-of-23 on field goals, while Justin Yoon is 10-of-14 for the Irish. Kicking off the Cardinal kickers have coaxed touchbacks 65 percent of the time. Yoon and freshman Jonathan Doerer have done so at a rate of 28 percent.

“I think it's been a mixed bag,” Kelly said of the Irish special teams. “I don't think it's been a negative for us. I would have liked a little bit more maybe from our kicking game, but we’re trying to get a true freshman kicker involved. I thought he had a pretty good game kicking into the wind against Navy.

“I think it's probably fair to say that we've been fair to middling. We haven't been bad, and we haven't been great. And sometimes to be great you've got to have one great game breaker.

“You've got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don't know that we have that guy right now. So then it's up to guys doing their jobs.”

Chris Finke coughed up the ball on a punt return Saturday against Navy, the first special teams turnover of the year. Kelly said he plans to stick with Finke in that role.

Elko makes the cut

Irish first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko was named Tuesday as one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award, since 1996 given to the nation’s top college football assistant coach.

The field will narrow again to five finalists, with the winner being announced Dec. 5 at Little Rock, Ark.

The other 14 contenders are Brian Daboll (Alabama), Kevin Steele (Auburn), Tony Elliot (Clemson), Mel Tucker (Georgia), Jon Heacock (Iowa State), Manny Diaz (Miami), Todd Grantham (Mississippi State), Bill Bedenbaugh (Oklahoma), Chad Glasgow (TCU), Troy Walters (UCF), Tee Martin (USC), Pete Kwiatkowski (Washington), Alex Grinch (Washington State) and Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin).

The only Irish assistant to win the award while at ND was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in 2012.

Notre Dame offensive tackle Tommy Kraemer (left) is part of a more physical approach on offense that has ND No. 7 in the nation in rushing and No. 1 in red-zone offense. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)