Notre Dame O-line coach Jeff Quinn embraces the challenge of Clemson's trump card

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jeff Quinn is grinning and gabbing like he knows something you don’t know instead of staring down the obvious task of having to deal with Clemson’s trump card.

The reality is the matchup between the first Notre Dame offensive line incubated and curated by Quinn and Clemson’s nation’s best defensive line figures to be where the first-ever Irish football playoff experience will either come unraveled or be the flashpoint for a shock-the-world moment.

It all plays out Dec. 29 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, in the cumbersomely labeled Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff semifinal (4 p.m.; ESPN). More succinctly, it’s Notre Dame’s only second serious national championship run since 1993.

Quinn, the successor to the popular and uber-successful Harry Hiestand as ND’s O-line coach, must funnel the intermittent peaks of a group that did make the cut to 10 semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award and present in less than two weeks a version that would have made the late Joe Moore, ND’s iconic former O-line coach, refrain from swearing.

“The biggest challenge that we face is all five guys taking care of their job, their responsibility and doing that against great competition,” Quinn said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do for four quarters. One guy can’t make a mistake.”

Three of No. 2 Clemson’s starting defensive linemen were first-team All-America by at least one of the big five organizations that matter most — defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, and defensive end Clelin Ferrell.

Ferrell (6-foot-4, 265) was a consensus selection (four of five). Wilkins (6-4, 315) was one of only eight players nationally who earned unanimous All-America honors in 2018.

The one Clemson D-lineman shut out of All-America mention this year, senior end Austin Bryant (6-6, 280), was a first-team All-American per the Football Writers Association of America last year.

All but the 6-4, 350-pound Lawrence are seniors, and all three of them deferred their NFL dreams to make another run at a national title.

In ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay’s latest prospect rankings — released Tuesday morning — Ferrell was the No. 9 prospect overall, with six of the top nine and 15 of the top 32 players being defensive linemen.

Lawrence, a junior, was No. 13, while Wilkins was 17. ND’s top prospect, per McShay, is senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, at No. 19.

Only grad senior center and captain Sam Mustipher for No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) ranks among McShay’s top 10 in positional rankings (eighth), though right tackle Robert Hainsey and left guard Aaron Banks are not yet draft-eligible, and right guard Tommy Kraemer and left tackle Liam Eichenberg have two years of eligibility after this one.

Translating the Tigers’ pro potential back into college production, Clemson (13-0) was 17th in the pre-bowl national statistical rankings in run defense, third in sacks, second in tackles for loss, second in scoring defense, fourth in total defense, and seventh in third-down defense — all slightly ahead of where top-ranked Alabama (13-0) sits in each category.

While Notre Dame has not faced a team that currently ranks higher than 59th nationally in total defense in its past 11 games, the Irish did clash with the nation’s No. 1 total defense, Michigan, in its Sept. 1 opening win (24-17) and the best individual player on McShay’s board among Irish opponents — Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary (No. 5).

And ND’s own defensive line during the season was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the nation’s third best, behind only Clemson and Alabama. All of which buoys Quinn’s effervescent optimism.

“The great part of this football team is that you’re facing some of the best football players in the country every single day,” Quinn said. “It’s given us a lot of confidence, but it’s also given us an opportunity to look at some of our weaknesses and try to build into our strengths.

“I think every day you have to be prepared, or you’ll get exposed. That’s why this football team is where it is today.

“And I think when we finished the game against Michigan, it was very clear to me that they understood exactly where their expectations were of themselves and each other relative to the outcome of the season.

“I knew where they wanted to go and how they wanted to be coached and the greatness they had inside of them to get to that point.”

The extra time without weekly game prep also feeds into the ND offensive line’s potential for growth.

“You can really walk them through some of the technique stuff that throughout the year tends to get lost in the fuss of learning schemes and playing against different looks,” said grad senior guard Alex Bars, who became “coach” Alex Bars once two torn knee ligaments on Sept. 29 ended his season.

“The technical aspect is so important, and these couple of weeks give you a chance to make a lot of progress.”

So does Bars’ daily presence and intermittent drop-ins from 2018 All-America offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, now rookies with the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.

Nelson and McGlinchey were regulars at practice last spring. Both were on the sideline for the Michigan game, and McGlinchey again for ND’s 36-3 walloping of Syracuse at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17. Nelson, who talks to Bars on a daily basis, spent the Colts’ bye week on the Notre Dame campus, helping Quinn and the Irish O-line.

“That’s what this program is all about,” Quinn said, “being able to embrace all players — whether they’re former players, current players, injured players — to help the guys out there perform at the highest level.”

Notre Dame offensive line coach Jeff Quinn gives instructions to the offensive linemen during Saturday morning's practice inside Notre Dame Stadium.