Bigger picture prompts Notre Dame to realign with Aaron Banks now in the starting lineup

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — What Brian Kelly is counting on being the long-term fix for his still-incubating Notre Dame offensive line has come roaring into the present this week.

The key piece to the reshuffle — big, athletic sophomore left guard Aaron Banks — is scheduled to make his first collegiate start, in his home state of California Saturday night, when the No. 3 Irish (7-0) tangle with Navy (2-5) for the 92nd consecutive season.

Kickoff at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego is 8 p.m. EDT. CBS has the national telecast.

The Navy triple-option offense is a morphing, moving target of sorts, and the ninth-year Irish head coach had the benefit of a bye week to help mitigate the annual culture shock.

But Kelly’s own offense had been dropping hints since Sept. 29 that it might be in need of attention during the bye too, and perhaps a minor makeover was in order after ND’s best offensive player, grad senior left guard Alex Bars, was lost for the season more than three weeks ago with a pair of torn knee ligaments.

A corresponding move is that Bars’ short-term fill-in — assignment-correct and schematic whiz senior Trevor Ruhland — has moved over to right guard to challenge, and perhaps tag-team with, one-time prodigy, junior Tommy Kraemer.

The Irish sit at a pedestrian 59th nationally in rushing offense (179.1 yards per game, 4.17 per carry), a season after finishing seventh in rushing yards per game (269.3) and establishing a school standard for yards per carry (6.25).

Notre Dame rushed for 80 yards on 38 carries in its most recent game, a 19-14 escape of Pitt on Oct. 13. Both the rushing total and the 2.11 yards per carry in that game are season lows.

The Irish have allowed a total of five sacks over their past two games, against Virginia Tech and Pitt, after ceding a combined three in the three preceding games, against Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Stanford.

“I just think he’s been emerging over a period of time,” Kelly said Tuesday of Banks, a former standout at El Cerrito High in northern California. “Certainly when Alex went down, it created more of a focus on the position itself. Trying to duplicate that kind of size and quickness that Alex has is very difficult.

“We felt like Aaron has accelerated his game to the point where we feel comfortable starting him at the left guard position. Still have a lot of confidence in Ruhland and Kraemer. I think Josh Lugg continues to improve, as well.

“But we think our best chance at playing at the level that we need to puts a (6-foot-6), 325-pound lineman that pass protects very well, moves his feet very well, and plays with explosiveness (on the field). It now gives us two really big, physical, athletic players on the left side.”

The reality is that the Irish probably could have functioned with the smaller Ruhland (6-4, 295) at left guard next to 6-6, 308-pound left tackle Liam Eichenberg against the balance of Notre Dame’s regular-season schedule, with Florida State presenting the most challenging front seven of its five future opponents.

This move, though, was made with an eye toward the College Football Playoff, where not only would there be a steep step up in the quality of front sevens the Irish likely would have to face (think Alabama, Clemson), but that those teams have complementary offenses to make you pay if you struggle against their defenses.

“I think after the bye week is always a good time to think about making these kind of changes,” former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor said on this week’s ND Insider Pod of Gold Podcast.

Taylor, a San Diego resident, will be part of CBS’ broadcast team on Saturday night.

“You’ve got time to prepare both physically and mentally,” Taylor continued, “and you’re playing a Navy team that last week struggled to stop Houston.

“I think those two things — the bye week and a defense that you’re probably going to be successful against — means it’s a really good opportunity (to) make that move.”

Ruhland’s upper-body strength had been crimped by a second torn pectoral muscle injury while at ND, this one this past spring, and the lifting restrictions that followed.

He offers a contrast to Kraemer at right guard, a new position for the 6-6, 319-pound junior this season after being groomed as a tackle his first couple of years on campus. Kraemer has had moments when he’s been as physically dominating as his high-four-star pedigree suggested he’d be, but he’s also allowed QB pressures with surprising frequency.

“I think each one brings a little bit different thing to the table there,” Kelly said. “Tom is a big, physical player with a lot of experience. Trevor is a guy that we really like his technique. Very smart player, savvy player.

“So I think they complement each other well. I think both of them together give us a really good tandem, if you will, at that right side.”

Banks was an early enrollee in January of 2017 and was working earlier this season behind classmate and fellow early enrollee, Robert Hainsey, at right tackle. Bars’ injury revised his learning track.

Having lost top 10 picks Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL Draft last spring, following up on the Joe Moore Award was never a realistic outcome in 2018. But playing to a high standard and improving over the season to be a top-tier offensive line certainly was.

Will the midseason moves be enough of a recalibration to get them there?

“Honestly, that’s the concern I have for the offense is whether or not the offensive line at this point can continue to develop at that position,” Taylor said. “Developing a consistent running game is going to be crucial.

“They were so dominant a year ago up front. This year that development hasn’t been there. There’s still some work to do up front, but I think they can get there.”

Notre Dame offensive lineman Aaron Banks (69) celebrates with fans following ND’s 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1 at Orlando, Fla. The sophomore will make his first college start on Saturday night.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs. Navy (2-5)

When: Saturday at 8 p.m. (EDT)

Where: SDCCU Stadium; San Diego

TV: CBS

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 23 1/2