Notebook: Liam Eichenberg tackles life on the Notre Dame O-line without Alex Bars
SOUTH BEND — The hidden collateral damage from the two torn ligaments in Alex Bars’ left knee potentially could be the player who has been lining up to his left for the past five games, junior Liam Eichenberg.
The first-year starter at left tackle certainly benefited from both the physical presence of sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s best and most-consistent offensive player to date and their pre-snap conversations in the flow of the games.
Irish head football coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday that Bars will continue to stay engaged with the team after season-ending surgery next week, including traveling for road games. Saturday night’s first-ever trip for the ND program to Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium, though, will be the exception.
Kickoff for the ABC national telecast is 8:21 (EDT), with a broadcast time set for 8 p.m. The Irish are looking to go 6-0 for the first time since 2014. The 23rd-ranked Hokies (3-1) are seeking their 17th win in their last 19 non-conference games at home.
The flip at the top of the quarterback depth chart has fueled a dramatic offensive surge by the Irish in the past two weeks, but so has the collective progress of the offensive line over the past three weeks. In that time, Notre Dame has leaped from 99th to 47th nationally in sacks allowed and 105th to 44th in rushing offense.
In ND’s 38-17 victory over then-No. 7 Stanford on Saturday night, the Irish offense allowed just one pressure by an unblocked defender on 44 dropbacks by quarterback Ian Book (including scrambles), according to a film study by the Tribune’s Tyler James. and the total percentages of dropbacks under pressure was under the 30-percent threshold for the second game in a row.
“I’d rather have Alex Bars next to him,” Kelly said of Eichenberg. “But he certainly has progressed each and every week that he has gotten more snaps. and we knew that would be the case.
“He’s still a first-time starter, but has made the progress that we see as commensurate with a guy that has (five games) under his belt.”
Senior Trevor Ruhland is listed as Bars’ replacement this week, though ascending sophomore Aaron Banks could eventually be the long-term solution at left guard.
Start No. 6 for Eichenberg would have been challenging even with Bars.
Virginia Tech, at No. 4 in rush defense, tops ND’s opponents in that category, including Michigan, though only Duke (55th) among the Hokies four foes so far ranks higher than 118th in rushing offense in the FBS (Old Dominion 119th, Florida State 120th) or FCS (William & Mary 118th).
And the Hokies, under 24th-year defensive coordinator Bud Foster, are 19th in sacks and 16th in tackles for loss.
“If you watch their film this year, they’ve shown you everything,” Kelly said of the Virginia Tech defense. “So you have to really prepare for a lot. and there’s a lot of moving parts to their defense.”
Which makes the 6-4, 295-pound Ruhland a good fit for Saturday night, even though the Irish are giving away a lot of size from Bars (6-6, 316) and potentially Banks (6-6, 319). It will be the second career start for Ruhland, all in a three-week span.
“His bones have been made by playing center,” Kelly said of Ruhland, likely ND’s starter at that position in 2019. “So by nature, he’s had to be that kind of player — one that has to communicate, one that has to call out fronts.
“So it makes for a pretty good situation where you can plug him in, and that’s kind of how he’s been coached and taught.”
Bars, meanwhile, faces a long rehab before the NFL Draft next spring, yet his strong start to the season has caught the attention of pro scouts.
“Even with that excellent start, the injury will likely push him into Day 3 of the draft (rounds 4-7),” said draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “Could be a bargain there.
“At the very least, he profiles as a swing backup at offensive tackle and offensive guard.”
Jones keeping up
Kelly initially figured he’d have to go easy on leading rusher Tony Jones Jr. in practice this week after the junior suffered an ankle sprain Saturday night against Stanford, and Kelly wasn’t sure if he’d have him at all for the Hokies.
What a difference a couple of days make.
“I think that after talking to our trainers and Tony, he’s in a really good position to get after it in an aggressive manner on a Tuesday,” Kelly said. “So better than had been forecasted.”
Still, don’t be surprised if senior Dexter Williams gets his first career start after posting career highs in carries (21) and yards (161) in his season debut, Saturday night against Stanford.
“I was counting on if we could get eight, 10 (carries) max we’d be in great shape,” Kelly said of his expectations for Williams’ workload against Stanford, coming off a four-game suspension. “But to his credit, he really worked hard to be in the best possible condition to go in there and impact.
“So I don’t think there’s any restrictions in terms of what he could do for us moving forward now.”
Jafar Armstrong (knee infection) will miss his second straight game, so backing up Williams and Jones on Saturday night with be sophomore Avery Davis and freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.
Perhaps more impressive than the six tackles against Stanford, including smothering Heisman Trophy runner-up Bryce Love for a five-yard loss, was senior rover Asmar Bilal’s performance in pass coverage.
Which to this point in his career has been what has limited his playing time.
Saturday night he was outstanding, particularly when it came to helping to limit the vaunted Cardinal tight ends. Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson combined for two catches for 35 yards against the Irish, both season lows in tight end production.
The pair had combined for at least five catches and at least 55 yards in each of Stanford’s four previous games, including nine for 145 yards in a 38-31 overtime win at Oregon on Sept. 22.
“It’s just instinctual awareness,” Kelly said of Bilal. “He was always a very talented athletic player, but maybe lacked some of the instinctual kind of traits at that position.
“I think our staff’s done a really good job … with him on recognition of plays.”
If the trend continues, it’s a big step forward for the Irish defense as a whole. Rover, and the position that tag-teams with it — nickel — had been the places where growing pains had shown up the most through the first four games of the season.
• A strong start Saturday night at Lane Stadium by the Irish is a must. Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente has never surrendered a halftime lead in his time at Virginia Tech (20-0 when leading), and is 40-4 in such games in his head coaching career.
• Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery earned his second national Player of the Week award from his performance in the Stanford game. Tuesday it was the Bronko Nagurski weekly honor for his six tackles , four sacks, one forced fumble and two QB hurries.
• Former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has settled in at his new football home, the University of Cincinnati.
The Bearcats are 5-0 heading into a Saturday home matchup with Tulane, after winning just four games in 2017. UC, with Denbrock leading its offense, has improved from 101st in total offense last season to 31st so far this season.
Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (5-0) vs. No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1)
When: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)
Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va.
Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 6 1/2