FOOTBALL

Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame's offensive line ready for physical challenge against Navy

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The last time Liam Eichenberg spoke to reporters in the Guglielmino Athletic Complex during a Notre Dame game week, the left tackle used colorful language to describe what the Irish planned to do to Virginia Tech in October last season.

In cleaner terms, Eichenberg predicted Notre Dame would physically dominate the Hokies and return from Blacksburg, Va., with a victory. He wasn’t wrong. The Irish pulled away in the second half to win 45-23.

But the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Eichenberg didn’t have any bold predictions for this Saturday’s matchup with CFP No. 23 Navy (7-1).

“Yeah, I’m done with that,” Eichenberg said Tuesday night. “But I’m excited for the game Saturday. One thing I’ll say is it’s going to be cold. That’s about it.”

Eichenberg will be right about that too. The forecast for Saturday includes temperatures ranging from the 20s to the 30s.

Even though Eichenberg has learned to be more careful with his words in media settings, that doesn’t mean he approaches games with a different expectation.

“I’m going to assume a lot of people have that attitude for every single game,” Eichenberg said.

Physical domination will always be the goal for Notre Dame’s offensive line. The No. 16 Irish (7-2) have fallen short of that goal on multiple occasions this season.

The up-and-down rushing totals are a reflection of Notre Dame’s inconsistent play on the offensive line. The Irish entered the week ranked No. 50 in the FBS with 174.7 rushing yards per game. That number received some serious inflation after Notre Dame rushed for 288 yards in last Saturday’s 38-7 win at Duke. Before the Duke game, the Irish ranked No. 72 nationally with 160.9 rushing yards per game.

Eichenberg said the offensive line willingly takes the blame for any struggles in the running game. In both of Notre Dame’s losses this season, the Irish have failed to reach 50 rushing yards.

At Georgia, the Irish ran just 14 times for 46 yards. At Michigan, 31 carries resulted in only 47 yards.

“We take full responsibility,” Eichenberg said of the ups and downs of the running game. “Every offensive lineman would say we take responsibility. We attack it every week. We know we have to improve. That’s what we’re striving for.”

The struggles in the running game aren’t necessarily the result of consistent issues either, Eichenberg said. Sometimes the opposing defenses have drawn up the right schemes to limit what Notre Dame wants to do. Sometimes the Irish have failed in executing their game plan.

“It just depends on the defense,” Eichenberg said. “You could have the perfect play, but they could call the perfect blitz. We just need to go back to our technique every single play. There are some times when you’re thinking too much and you don’t execute what you need to do. You just have to take it one play at a time, not worry about the past or the future.”

The worry Saturday will be a Navy run defense that’s been stingy this season. The Midshipmen rank No. 17 in the country in rushing defense by allowing just 109.4 yards per game. Only two teams have rushed for at least 150 yards against Navy this season: USF (150) and Tulane (189).

Even if some of Navy’s defenders are a bit undersized, Eichenberg knows that they’ll be ready for a fight.

“Their two linebackers are great, fill-the-hole linebackers,” Eichenberg said. “I remember pulling around hitting one of them last year and I was like, ‘I just hit a wall.’ They’re physical guys. It’s Navy. We’re excited. It will be a physical game.”

First-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has given Navy a completely different outlook on defense.

“They’re a great defense,” Eichenberg said. “They’re a top 20 defense. We’re excited and you know it’s going to be a good test for us.”

Notre Dame’s offensive line set a high bar for itself with its performance in the 30-27 victory over USC on Oct. 12. The Irish rushed for 308 yards and allowed quarterback Ian Book to be sacked just once.

It won’t be easy for the Irish offensive line to match that output with starting right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey sidelined. Kraemer, recovering from a sprained MCL suffered at Michigan, may be able to return for Notre Dame’s bowl game. Hainsey, who fractured his ankle in the Virginia Tech game, will be out for the rest of the season

“It was terrible seeing them get injured,” Eichenberg said. “My heart goes out to them. I felt horrible. The good thing about those guys is they care so much about the offensive line. They’re not going to let an injury stop them from helping this unit.

Kraemer and Hainsey have been present at practices trying to help their replacements Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg. The latter made his first career start at right tackle against Duke.

“It’s definitely difficult, but he’s a great football player,” Eichenberg said of Lugg. “That’s why he came here. I know we believe in him.”

Eichenberg can’t spend too much energy worrying about the right side of the line. He has his own improvements to keep him preoccupied. Eliminating his propensity for false starts would be a good place to start. Eichenberg has been called for five false starts this season, three of them in Notre Dame Stadium.

Eichenberg said the officials have missed him moving too early at times too. He cited the second offensive play of the Virginia Tech game as a time when he flinched as the result of defender yelling, but a flag wasn’t thrown.

Because the Irish typically use a clapping cadence, the Irish offensive linemen are waiting for the sound of Book clapping to start the play. It’s a bit different than the verbal cadences most players are used to hearing when they’re learning to play the game or in high school.

“It’s difficult because we’re all trying to load up to get off the ball, and we’re waiting for a sound,” Eichenberg said. “Somebody could scream really quick, and I’m like, ‘Ugh.’ Because it’s tough. The defense can time it up. We see it all the time.”

Eichenberg hasn’t been flagged for a false start since the USC game. That’s kept him from having to complete the 50 yards worth of up-downs that come as punishment for a false start.

The flinching is one flaw Eichenberg will certainly need to fix before attempting a jump to the NFL. On Tuesday, Eichenberg, who has started the last 22 games for Notre Dame, said he plans to return to Notre Dame next season as a graduate student. Eichenberg’s draft stock likely hasn’t soared since the start of the season.

The Athletic’s draft analyst Dane Brugler pinned Eichenberg as the No. 4 offensive tackle prospect for the 2020 draft before the 2019 season. But earlier this month, Brugler did not include Eichenberg among the top 10 offensive tackle prospects for next year’s draft.

Eichenberg’s own appraisal of his senior season wasn’t glowing. He’s come a long way since his first start in the season opener last year and his first media blunder five weeks later, but there’s more left for Eichenberg to accomplish.

“I’ve done all right. There’s always room to improve,” Eichenberg said. “Just stupid mistakes, bad technique, poor technique. I have a long way to go.”

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Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg (74) expects a physical challenge from Navy’s defense on Saturday.
Liam Eichenberg LouisvilleLiam Eichenberg has started the last 22 games at left tackle for Notre Dame. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Notre Dame left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left, gave his first game week interview of the season this week. Last year, Eichenberg got in a little trouble for using colorful language during a media session before the Virginia Tech game.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) celebrates with left tackle Liam Eichenberg (74) after a touchdown against Bowling Green.