Analysis: Notre Dame O-Line has work to do in USC aftermath, and Bars is there to help

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

Since laboring off the field Sept. 29 with two ligament tears in his left knee, Alex Bars has missed exactly one Notre Dame football practice.

The day he underwent surgery.

“Alex is around us all the time,” said Brian Kelly, who Saturday night in Los Angeles became the first Notre Dame head football coach since Frank Leahy (1947, 1949) to complete a second unbeaten/untied regular season.

The Irish (12-0) remained No. 3 in both major polls Sunday, after their 24-17 road win over arch-rival USC, with the next CFP rankings set to be unveiled Tuesday night (7 EST; ESPN).

“He’s in our meetings,” Kelly continued of Bars, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound grad senior captain. “He travels with us. Extremely active. He’s on the field.

“He’s with the linemen, taking special care and attention with (sophomore Aaron) Banks in terms of trying to do as much of passing on any of the knowledge that he has in between the coaching. He’s extremely active in what we’re doing.”

Bars, arguably ND’s best offensive player at any position at the time of the injury, is one of so many behind-the-scenes stories that helped catalyze the nation’s preseason No. 11 team into one on a seemingly unimpeded trajectory for the College Football Playoff.

Both his diligence and toughness seem to run in the family.

Younger sister Lauren, a sophomore setter on the Ole Miss volleyball team and girlfriend of former Notre Dame All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson, has “two teeth knocked out” and “20 stitches” on her own injury résumé, per father Joe Bars.

Older brother Brad Bars, a former Penn State and New York Giants defensive end, lost a college season to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

“Injuries are part of it. We get it,” said Joe Bars, a former Notre Dame linebacker in the Gerry Faust Era (1981-84) and currently in the insurance business in Nashville, Tenn.

“But Alex is a captain, and the expectation was that he continue to do the captain thing. I think he’s done that and done it very willingly.”

Until just before Senior Night at Notre Dame — Nov. 10 versus Florida State — Alex Bars was doing his captain thing on a scooter or on crutches.

Joe Bars added it’s too early to know how long the rehab from a torn ACL and MCL will last, though Kelly said Alex is pondering whether to train to do the bench press part of the NFL Scouting Combine testing, Feb. 26-March 4 in Indianapolis.

“We kind of try not to pay attention to the draft talk and projections,” Joe Bars said. “We’re pretty excited that he can walk again. And only a father would say in that moment, ‘Well, can you run?’ Right?”

Alex apparently can coach, and Notre Dame’s offensive line could use his voice, along with first-year line coach Jeff Quinn’s, in December as it presumptively gets ready for a Dec. 29 College Football Playoff semifinal date in either the Orange Bowl or the Cotton Bowl.

Although ND’s offensive line last week was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s top O-Line, it’s the position group with both the most potential to improve and the biggest gap to close over the next month if the first 13th win team in school history is going to become a reality.

Bars works primarily with Banks, who replaced him at left guard, left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer in practice and on game days.

Banks and Eichenberg are both first-year starters. Kraemer is at a new position from last year, when he tag-teamed at right tackle.

“The game had really slowed down for Alex this year before the injury, and that comes with experience,” Joe Bars said. “If he can share that with these guys, maybe that can help them learn faster.

“Whatever happens, it’s an easy choice for him to do what he’s doing. He just loves Notre Dame.”

In the rear-view mirror

Kelly’s predecessor at Notre Dame, Charlie Weis, is a habitual tweeter on Twitter since rejoining the social media platform about a year and a half ago.

He made the point, though, Sunday, to let his former team know he still keeps an eye on them.

“Congrats to Notre Dame for both an undefeated regular season and a spot in the final four! No argument can be made preventing that, even by the biggest haters!” he posted.

• Another former ND coach, Bob Davie, could be making a return to Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 14, when the Irish play their next home football game, against New Mexico.

Then again, he might need a ticket for entry.

Davie’s seventh season at New Mexico ended with seven straight losses, the latest a 31-3 drubbing by a 6-6 Wyoming team that limited the Lobos to — what looks like a typo — 83 yards in total offense.

Just as pertinent in the big picture is that the announced attendance at the Lobos’ home game was 14,269, though media reports pegged the actual number of fans who showed up at closer to 3,000. And the average paid attendance (16.587) was the lowest in 27 seasons.

The 64-year-old Davie is 33-54 at New Mexico.

• Two wins to end the season apparently weren’t enough to save former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford from being fired as the head coach of Western Kentucky on Sunday.

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman is reporting that the former Penn High School QB is out after two seasons and a 9-16 mark, including 3-9 this season.

When Sanford was hired after the 2016 season at ND, at 34 years old he was the youngest head coach in the FBS. He received a four-year contract and succeeded Jeff Brohm, 30-10 at WKU and currently at Purdue.

Fun with numbers

Brian Kelly’s 6-3 record against USC has come after the two previous coaching regimes — Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham — combined to go 0-8 against the Trojans.

Now, not all USC teams are created equal. Bob Davie (3-2) and Gerry Faust (3-2), for instance, have as many wins against ND’s Pacific Coast rival as did Ara Parseghian (3-6-2) and more then Dan Devine (1-5).

But Kelly’s mark is significant. All but this year’s edition finished with a winning record. Four of the nine finished with double-digit wins, and five of them finished in the top 20 of the final AP poll of their respective seasons.

• The superlatives for the Notre Dame defense this week include a No. 4 ranking nationally in pass-efficiency defense and No. 8 standing in yards per play allowed.

Overlooked perhaps for the nation’s No. 22 team in total defense is its consistency under first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

The FBS teams that have held each of its opponents this season to 27 points or fewer are: Fresno State and Notre Dame. That’s it.

• Should Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State make the playoff field, all four teams would feature first-year starters at QB. The combined number of college starts prior to this season for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, ND’s Ian Book and OSU’s Dwayne Haskins is one — Book’s 2017 start vs. North Carolina.

Should Oklahoma make the field instead of Ohio State, that number grows to four, with Kyler Murray having made three starts as a freshman at Texas A&M before transferring.

Not so fast, my friend

If Alabama beats Georgia in the SEC title game Saturday, and if Clemson beats Pitt in the ACC title game, and if the College Football Playoff selection committee keeps Notre Dame at No. 3 on Selection Sunday, then the likely site for ND’s semifinal playoff game would be Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

Alabama would presumably play the No. 4 seed 605 miles away from its campus, at Arlington, Texas, with the committee’s intention to give a geographical edge to the top seed.

However, what if Oklahoma ended up as the No. 4 team? Arlington is only 195 miles from the Sooners’ Norman, Okla., campus. So a shift to Miami Gardens would make sense for Alabama. That’s just over 1,500 miles away from Oklahoma’s campus and not much farther (774 miles) than Arlington is for Alabama.

Clemson and ND, in that scenario, would play in the Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. For the record, Arlington is roughly 300 miles closer to South Bend than the south Florida site.

Notre Dame’s offensive line continued to get better throughout the season, even after losing Alex Bars (71) in the Stanford game.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Irish coach Brian Kelly celebrate after ND’s 24-17 win over USC, Nov. 24 in Los Angeles.