Notebook: Tackling the next chapter after a challenging opener for Notre Dame's O-line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The best chaser for an arduous opening night for Notre Dame starting offensive tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey, Brian Kelly figured, was a shot of perspective.

Michigan’s Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich very well could end up being the best edge players — at least in tandem — the Irish (1-0) face this season. and Eichenberg and Hainsey did so in their first and second career starts, respectively, Saturday night in a 24-17 season-opening victory.

“I don’t think they feel as though their confidence has been diminished as much as they feel like both of them had a chance to work against two outstanding players in Gary and Winovich,” Kelly said of his starting tackles. “So I think they leave the game feeling better that they really got challenged more so than they got beat up.”

For context’s sake, the numbers that most reflect offensive line play overall from Saturday night were better than how last year’s Irish offensive line — one that evolved into the nation’s best, per its Joe Moore Award — fared in an early-season matchup with an elite Georgia defense in 2017.

The Wolverine defense was credited with seven tackles for loss, including two sacks, with an admittedly very conservatively calculated three QB hurries. The Irish ran 47 times for 132 yards against Michigan, a 2.8 yards-per-carry average.

Georgia’s numbers in a 20-19 Bulldog win were nine tackles for loss, including three sacks, with seven quarterback hurries. The ND running game was held to a season-low 55 yards on 37 carries for a 1.49 average.

If there is a concern this early with the tackles, it could be Hainsey’s endurance. He was given an IV at halftime of the Michigan game on an admittedly oppressively muggy night, and Kelly confirmed after practice on Thursday they’re still “being careful with him” instead of giving him full practice reps.

Hainsey suffered a leg injury in August and missed a week and a half of preseason camp. and while Kelly didn’t tie his conservative practice approach with Hainsey to that, the coach did acknowledge he didn’t want to push the sophomore.

“We feel like he’s a guy who would benefit by not having an overload of snaps right now,” Kelly said, “He’s 296 pounds and a guy who has problems keeping weight on. We’re really thinking about the long haul here.”

In the short haul, the Irish this Saturday face Ball State, a team that generated 24 sacks last season, 11.5 of them by defensive end Anthony Winbush. But Winbush exhausted his eligibility last season.

In the running game, the Cardinal defense allowed 5.0 yards a carry last season.

At 65th nationally in sacks per game, that represents the best national ranking in 2017 for any significant offensive or defensive category registered by the Cardinals. Ball State, a five-TD underdog at Notre Dame Stadium, ranked in the bottom 20 last season in pass-efficiency defense, scoring defense, third-down defense, turnovers gained, total offense, scoring offense and team passing efficiency.

“My sense is the way this team has prepared, that they recognize coming into their own stadium that they’re going to have to exert themselves to a level they have over the last 7 1/2 months,” Kelly said when pressed about overconfidence.

“If they go at this the way they’ve worked out for (strength) coach (Matt) Balis, me and everybody, then we’ll play well.”

Personnel update

Kelly continues to push for sophomore Jonathan Doerer to kick off on Saturday after a long night against Michigan that included a kickoff that landed out of bounds, one that was so low and poorly placed it helped lead to a 99-yard kickoff return, and one in which he was flagged for a personal foul.

The alternative is senior place-kicker Justin Yoon, whom Kelly would like to save for PATs and field goals only.

“I thought he responded the right way,” Kelly said of what he’s seen from Doerer in practice this week “He’s going to kick a lot. We need him out there.”

• Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa underwent surgery Thursday morning on the broken foot he suffered in Saturday night’s game. Kelly said it went well and that the key backup is expected to miss 10 weeks.

“Nobody (else) will be out (Saturday against Ball State) other than Myron,” Kelly said.

Pick and roll with it

One game into his junior year and Julian Okwara already has as many career interceptions (2) as all the other defensive ends to have played at Notre Dame in the Brian Kelly Era (2010-present) at Notre Dame … combined.

Andrew Trumbetti got one against Wake Forest in 2015, and Stephon Tuitt one against Michigan in 2013.

Okwara’s latest came Saturday night against Michigan. Linebacker Te’von Coney rushed Michigan QB Shea Patterson’s throw, blitzing up the middle. Okwara initially started to rush the passer, but then quickly reversed field and dropped into coverage.

He then snagged the Patterson pass intended for tight end Sean McKeon.

The secret to Okwara’s success? It’s kind of a mystery to him.

“Honestly, it was all a surprise,” he said this week after a recent practice. “I guess I was just in the right place at the right time. It just happened.”

Getting their Irish up

Ever wonder how much the country of Ireland actually cares about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, let alone college football in general?

Well, enough that there’s a weekly 2½-hour show, airing in Dublin dedicated specifically to just that.

Declan Hughes hosts “On The Ball” every Sunday night on Dublin’s 103.2 FM from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Irish Standard Time). American journalist Len Clark contributes from the U.S.

Clark has taught journalism courses at Notre Dame and has spent a considerable amount of time in Dublin. He is a regular at the Mojofest Conference and conducts media and leadership training for companies in Ireland.

“Notre Dame has a strong connection to Dublin, with a number of their alumni in the city, and students studying here,” Hughes said. “We are excited to include the reports on ‘On the Ball’ to keep them up to date with the football team, while also helping to grow the Notre Dame fan base here in Ireland.”

Podcast gold

Former Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix joined the ND Insider Pod of Gold podcast this week, and had some intriguing observations of current Irish QBs Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book, a peek behind the curtain of his own QB competitions under Kelly, and his views of a two-QB system, which at certain stretches he as part of.

Here’s a small sampling of the conversation regarding a two-QB system:

“I look back occasionally at my interviews about this exact same question, and I feel like a lot of times I would just toe the company line,” Hendrix said. “You don’t want to make that much noise in the media. You just want to go give the people what they want, make it so the coaches aren’t mad at you and keep everything in house.

“But from my experiences and from what I see, I just don’t like the two-quarterback system. … If there’s any way to get to one quarterback, I think that’s great.

“If you can’t decide, or both of them are underwhelming, sometimes you have to play two, but I think it’s better for everyone if you don’t.”

The Pod of Gold podcast is available free to listen or download at ndinsider.com.

Notre Dame offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg, right, blocks Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary (3) during Eichenberg’s first college start, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.