Hansen: Notre Dame's offensive line challenges are real, but so is its vast potential

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly hears the whispers, which sometimes probably feel more like catcalls.

The Notre Dame head football coach just isn’t ready or willing to interpret them openly for those on the outside looking in at perhaps his most loaded roster in his 11th spring on the job.

In fact, when pressed Thursday — after practice No. 1 of 15 between now and April 18 — Kelly offered up a word salad about the facet of his team that most ties into last year’s cratering at Michigan as well as the one with the most potential to change those kinds of big-stage outcomes.

The offensive line.

Kelly’s shiny, new toy — reinstated wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. — was more than a spectacular distraction Thursday in practice No. 1 of the spring and promises to be so when the all-shorts/no-contact practices give way to the full contact ones in practice 3 on March 19.

But at some point, the stubborn questions about the offensive line have to be answered, on the field if not in Kelly’s give-and-takes with the media.

“See, I don’t know that we were that bad last year,” Kelly said Thursday. “We scored a lot of points. There seems to be this narrative out there that we weren’t very good at running the football. We were a pretty good offense last year. We keep parsing last year.

“Our job is to win football games. We’re going to continue to work on that focus of everybody needs to improve in every facet. It’s not just the offensive line. … So I think we can get off that train of, ‘The offensive line has to get better.’ Everybody has to get better.”

Even without contorting the numbers, there are elements of last year’s offensive line play that were stellar, including analytics-based Pro Football Focus grading out Notre Dame as the No. 2 pass-blocking team in the FBS.

And both Notre Dame’s rushing yards per-game (179.2) and per-carry averages (4.96) were slightly better than national champ LSU’s (166.9, 4.88).

But when Kelly plays the 33-6 card, ND’s record since his philosophical reboot after 2016, there’s a common thread in all six losses.

Notre Dame averaged 83.2 rushing yards in those six games and its collective yards per carry in them was 2.5. Its rushing totals in its two 2019 losses: 46 in the 23-17 near miss at Georgia, 47 in the 45-14 smackdown in the rain at Michigan.

In the 129 games Kelly has coached at ND, those two games rank as Nos. 124 and 125 in rushing output.

That’s not to say there aren’t other missing pieces in what has separated Notre Dame the past three seasons from making a serious run at a national title.

Recruiting elite speed at running back and wide receiver, notably, had to improve significantly, and the Irish have made strides there in the current freshman class and the 2021 group that will sign National Letters of Intent in December.

Third-year starter Ian Book must evolve from a top 25 type quarterback to a top 10 finisher in passing efficiency, just as all four College Football Playoff starters were last season.

But the offensive line already has an established track record and culture to be part of the solution. With five starters back, all with seemingly NFL futures, the material seems to be there as well.

The wild card is third-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

In part, because he followed coaching icon Harry Hiestand.

In part, because there was never a great chemistry between him and deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long. In part because the loud, social media-savvy portion of the fan base wants to purge him, and elite prospects want to flock to him.

Later this month six offensive line recruits, ranked among the top 75 overall players in this class on either 247Sports or Rivals, are scheduled to visit campus.

That group includes five uncommitted standouts: Clarkston (Mich.) High’s Garrett Dellinger and Rocco Spindler; Huntington (W.Va.) Spring Valley’s Wyatt Milum; Olney (Md.) Good Counsel’s Landon Tengwall and Warwick (Pa.) Lititz’s Nolan Rucci.

Pushing them to commit will be verbally committed offensive tackle Blake Fisher from Avon (Ind.) High.

“Look, Jeff had a tough task,” offered former Notre Dame offensive lineman and current ESPN radio host and analyst Mike Golic Jr. “Harry Hiestand was beloved around there. Harry Hiestand is a coach I and a lot of others would step in front of a bullet for.

“He was just that kind of galvanizing force in the room, and to follow that was a tough task, even for a guy who had been around there and knows coach Kelly. And I think Jeff stepped into that situation and he was himself.

“He didn’t try and be Harry Hiestand. He didn’t try and be anybody else. He’s so secure in that. I think he’s done a really great job in the last couple of years, coaching these guys up and making sure that that standard wasn’t lessened.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Hiestand and Quinn is the latter focusing more on motivating than relentlessly pushing technique. According to several sources close to the program, incorporating more of the latter would lead to better on-field results.

So might the realignment of offensive coaches — Rees to offensive coordinator, Lance Taylor to running game coordinator — though Kelly declined to shed any light on that possibility. Adding former Irish offensive guard Chris Watt as a grad assistant could prove to be valuable to Quinn as well.

Golic, during his ND career that ended in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game, played for four different O-Line coaches, with Hiestand the fourth and final of those.

“I’d say that’s the biggest thing you learn from each coach is the fundamentals of it,” Golic said. “When I think about what I learned that made the biggest difference from coach Hiestand, it’s technique. We didn’t spend that much time on some of the other things — trying to block up looks or anything like that.

“You’re always going to be presented with something you couldn’t have prepared for — some new blitz that they’ve come up with, their flavor of the week. The way Harry coached me was that my technique was going to be such that my rules could help me get through whatever adversity we come up against or whatever new scheme they try and dial up.”

Golic has gotten a chance to work with Notre Dame’s linemen in camp settings and believes this 2020 group will end up being so impactful that Kelly won’t have to dance around his words much longer.

“Listen, Notre Dame lost a ton of production on offense, especially at tight end and wide receiver and running back,” he said. “But you’ve got a group in that line and the quarterback that can say, ‘Yeah we’ll shoulder the load while the rest of you get up to speed.’

“I think knowing those guys the way I do, that’s a group that’s certainly up to the task. So I think they’re uniquely positioned to kind of be the strength, and that was exactly how we felt in 2012.

“We had great skill guys, but there was a mandate to us in coach Hiestand’s first season, we’re going to lead from the front. Like we have to be 10 feet tall and bullet-proof, so that everyone else can take their confidence from us.

“And I think that will be the mentality in a lot of ways for this year, too.”

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn works with his players during Notre Dame’s first spring football practice, Thursday at the Irish Athletics Center.
According to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, head coach Brian Kelly (pictured) took the lead in cancelling the final 14 spring practices due to COVID-19 concerns.