Chat Transcript: Breaking down ND's O-line breakdowns, possible solutions to a slow start

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
The Irish take the field before the Notre Dame-Toledo football game on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Eric Hansen: Welcome to Notre Dame Football Live Chat, Purdue week. As always, please include your NAME and HOMETOWN along with your questions.

I'll ease off on the unwritten "no whining" rule this week. But, please, if you're going to whine, be creative and concise. I'm fully caffeinated, and the queue is teeming with questions, so off we go.

Frank from Rockwall Texas: Do you think ND will throw a lot of quick passes to move the ball because of the weak front line?

Eric Hansen: I think you certainly blend that in. But if that's all you do, then you're not fully using the talents of your wide receiver corps and tight end Michael Mayer.

Pat from Orlando: Is Michael Carmody really the best option at left tackle? He was getting worked over in the FSU game. What about some of the older guys?

Eric Hansen: Pat, I'm going to strike this question up to being rhetorical. Why wouldn't you put your best options on the field? And as far as "older guys," Notre Dame's offensive tackle stash comprises a grad senior (Josh Lugg), who's playing right tackle; two redshirt freshmen (Carmody and Tosh Baker), both of whom played against Toledo; and two true freshmen (Caleb Johnson and Blake Fisher), the latter of whom is out for eight weeks. The older guys are earning paychecks in the NFL.

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Tom from Springfield Ill.: I was at the game last weekend, and my take away was they (the line) appeared worn out from the beginning. I wonder if the short week of practice and the long game in Florida contributed? My question is do you expect to a 50-50 split at QB as season goes on? This situation is almost setting up like what Kelly had in Cincinnati with Tony Pike and the other more mobile QB (Zach Collaros).

Eric Hansen: Tom, let me address your comment first, before your question. There is a price to pay for playing a Sunday night game, which brings your program exposure. You get home at 4:30 a.m. Monday, with your players expected to go to class that day. You lose your day off and you have to ratchet down the length of and intensity of your practices. Having said that, it's something a program like Notre Dame is expected to overcome. And following Purdue, the Irish will face five straight opponents who have a bye week immediately before playing ND. (and Virginia too in November). In 2019, ND went 7-0 under those scenarios, so it can be done.

To your question, I don't think it'll be 50-50 for the rest of the season, and it wasn't Saturday (62 plays for Coan, 19 for Buchner). I also don't think it'll be scripted. It'll be flow of the game type of thing.

Ced Walker from Saginaw, Mich.: With Lawrence Keys III maybe transferring, do we take another wide receiver in recruiting? Glad ND vs. Purdue is back on NBC. Prediction: ND 27, Purdue 20.

Eric Hansen: Before Keys decided to leave the roster (he's not in the portal yet), Notre Dame would have been happy with three receivers in the 2022 class, but would have considered four. Now, I think they have to take four, especially if Xavier Watts is going to stick on defense.

Chad from Denver: Eric, I have a lot of questions, so take your pick or skip them all together. And here they are: What is your best guess as to what Greg from Oakland is doing? My guess is kicking a puppy or taking ice cream from a child. Will we see Manny and his exclamation points again? IF Brian Kelly gets the right defensive coordinator hire in 2013, do the Irish make the playoff in 2015? I hope you and the rest of the South Bend Tribune folks are healthy and doing well. Thank you for all of the great work you do, day in and day out.

Eric Hansen: Chad, thank you. Here are you answers: 1. Definitely not hanging out with Manny. 2. Manny and his exclamation points showed up last week. Always such a positive vibe. He has missed some chats, because he's hanging with his grandkids, he said. 3. I do think that 2015 team makes the playoff with Clark Lea/Mike Elko. Two bad halves of defensive football — the first half at Clemson, the second half at Stanford — kept the Irish from an unbeaten regular season. Surely, they would have gotten in over an Oklahoma team that lost to a Texas squad the Irish obliterated in the 2015 opener.

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Good afternoon, Eric. With the ghost of Brian Van Gorder stalking the sideline, I am not going to pile on the defense, as I am sure there are many questions in the queue regarding big-play shortcomings. However, I am interested in Jordan Botelho's return. I think Marcus Freeman should get as many difference-makers on the field at one time. I wondered if you see a scenario where Botelho and Isaiah Foskey play at the same time?  Also, I think  Kevin Austin is key to breaking out the offense. Do you agree?

Eric Hansen: Patrick, we'll find out for sure Thursday, but Kelly seemed confident Monday Botelho would play. Yes, Botelho and Foskey can and will play at the same time, at times. We saw those packages in the August practices. Botelho is one of my purely platonic football crushes. Kevin Austin is the other. I expect both to have significant impact on Notre Dame's bottom line in 2021.

Brendan from Raleigh, N.C.: Hi Eric. I hope you are well!! Any idea why ND is sitting on someone like Audric Estime? Can he not yet pass block? I think he is bigger as a freshman than Jerome Bettis was when he arrived. Couldn't he could be laying the lumber on pass rushers and would-be tacklers while keeping Williams'/Tyree's legs fresh? Logan Diggs seems to be missing, too. Maybe they are still getting acclimated to the ND playbook? Lastly, has there been any rumblings about moving one of the members of the deep D-line over to the O-line to help with thin numbers? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Hi Brendan. I'm doing great, loving that football season is (more) normal this year. All good questions with logical answers. Freshman RB Audric Estime is playing on special teams. Perhaps he could become a short-yardage back in time. He has the body for it. Right now C'Bo Flemister has the role ... that is when he's available, which he won't be for a third week in a row. So why not Estime pass-blocking over Kyren Williams? Because Kyren Williams is an elite pass blocker. He's also way more advanced at this point at every other aspect of the offense (running and catching). I don't think staying fresh is an issue for Kyren or Chris Tyree at this point of the season.

Freshman Logan Diggs was ahead of Estime in August but missed the opener, presumably with COVID-19. Working his way back from that isn't a necessarily quick process. ... The issue with the offensive line isn't numbers or talent. It's continuity and chemistry. So moving a defensive lineman over to the offense — in the flow of a season, no less — would only add to the problems, not solve them. Now you can say, "Well they moved Xavier Watts to defense." That WAS a numbers problem at linebacker.

Brendan from Raleigh, N.C.: Hi Eric. I forgot one question: How would you grade Cain Madden's performance so far? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Underwhelming with certainly the potential to improve.

Michael from Elkview, W.Va.: Good afternoon. I am just really puzzled why the offensive coordinator does not call more screen passes. Against Florida State one was called and it went for a huge gain. Against 'Bama last year one went for another big gain. Could you ask coach Kelly if we could get one or two a quarter? What is your take as to why they do not run them more often? Also, how about some tunnel screens to the receivers?

Eric Hansen: Michael, I am tickled you think Brian Kelly would listen to my coaching advice -- or yours. As far as the why not more screens? There have been times over the years in which I was thinking the same thing during games, but keep in mind for screens to work, they have to be unexpected to a large extent. You have to get the defensive linemen flowing upfield. If you go to it too much, they're not going to bite, and the screens will be ineffective.

Jim from Oakwood, Ohio: Hi Eric. Are you in need of a pacemaker after watching and reporting on the two ND games? Lord, have mercy. I saw a great story in the Washington Post about a former ND walk-on (Tommy Smith, who played safety while enrolled in NROTC) from 13 or so years ago. He now is a Naval officer with a family of four, attending Vanderbilt's two-year grad program in management. Smith had some "free time," so he asked Clark Lea if he could walk on, since he had at least two years of eligibility. Lea said yes, so Smith is a 32-year-old tight end. And Lea says that his presence and leadership in the locker room is fantastic. Sounds like the innovative thinking by Lea — we saw during his (four) years at ND. That got me thinking ... did "Milk" (Michael Vinson) receive a scholarship — especially since he earned one by winning the long-snapper job on merit? I loved Tyler's story about him, his attitude and great work ethic. I don't recall seeing an announcement or a follow-up about Milk's reaction if one was awarded. Be well and take good care of yourself.

Eric Hansen: Jim, thanks. Actually I am in need of a more forgiving deadline for the "instant observations" pieces I do. It's hard to be analytical when you don't know who's going to win. ... Thanks for the heads-up on the Tommy Smith story. I had missed that. As far as "Milk" and the scholarship thing, it hasn't happened yet, but the numbers and circumstances add up for it to happen eventually.

Denny from Beaverton, Ore.: Hi Eric; Glad you are at the controls in what seems a crazy start to the year. I believe I heard Brian Kelly say that we have to simplify our defense going forward this week. I remember the defense was simplified for the remainder of the year after Brian VanGorder was fired after the Duke game, and the results were better. Notre Dame has smart, quality players, but the results are not good so far. Has Marcus Freeman put in too much too soon? Thanks for what you do each week.

Eric Hansen: Hi Denny and thank you. ... The way I see the issues on defense is there have been four really bad plays in two games and many more good ones. But there's been some inconsistency too. I don't see the problems as unfixable. I don't see the scheme as flawed. I still see this evolving into a much better version of what we're seeing now.

Jake from Saratoga, N.Y.: Hello Eric. Do you see a scenario where Brian Kelly goes exclusively to Tyler Buchner because of the struggles with the offensive line and his ability to help the run game? In my opinion, he also has arm talent that Jack Coan does not possess. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Jake, I would never rule that out, but I don't see that as the plan. As much as I am smitten with Buchner's talent myself, I know he's not in a position AT THIS TIME to slide protections and identify fronts consistently. And if he were the full-time QB at this point in his career, teams would scout him and try to structure their game plans to force Buchner into becoming a dropback passer and keeping him from leaking out into the open field. I think this QB arrangement is best as a tag team for now.

Denis from Niagara Falls, Ontario: Hi Eric. If Jordan Botelho plays this week, is he mainly a depth piece or does he offer something that the others don't have? Does he have a special niche? Also, if I may, any chance Drew Pyne gets a chance to prove his worth? I know he's undersized, but he must know the entire playbook. And I believe he possesses a mix of run and pass that the other two QBs don't possess at this time ( I may be way off on my assessment here).  Thanks very much.  Much appreciated.  And I was peeved off regarding the NBC/Peacock thing being unavailable to Canadians.

Eric Hansen: Hi Denis. I hope you were able to read my story late last week about how the Canadians could access the Toledo game. I had been asking about it since Aug. 4 and wasn't given the info until 22 hours before kickoff. Denis, Drew Pyne's opportunity probably doesn't come without an injury to Jack Coan. Pyne is an easy guy to root for, because he's got a great attitude. But he lacks the experience Coan has and the athletic ability that Buchner has. He did have all spring and all training camp to prove his worth. He received way more reps with the 1s than Buchner did, in fact.

Peter in Provo, Utah: Hi Eric, I'm curious about your thoughts on the loss of Chris Watt off the staff and if it has anything to do with the O-line play so far this year?

Eric Hansen: Peter, I'm going to answer your question directly, and then I'm going to ramble a little bit to address some of the other offensive questions and undertones within those questions. Here goes:

Chris Watt is going to be a star in the coaching business. He was ND's grad assistant last year and is now in his first year as a full-time O-line coach at Tulane. He would have been an asset at ND had he stayed.

Now to the other stuff. First, let me give you some context. I've written a lot of Notre Dame offensive line coach hiring stories. One in particular was really weird. This O-line coach had a good rep, but not at the school he was leaving, Tennessee. If you asked the fan base, they were at best indifferent, at worst celebrating his departure. He was there two years and inherited a tough situation. His final season, Tennessee ranked fifth from the bottom in rushing. The next year (2012) Harry Hiestand was at Notre Dame, a team that played for a national title.

Now to current line coach Jeff Quinn. When we had Rocco Spindler on our podcast, he said Quinn was the main reason he picked Notre Dame and was sold on how the O-line coach would develop him. If you're going to blame Quinn for the rough showing to start the season, then he equally deserves credit for honing a line that was a Joe Moore Award finalist last year and sent four players to the NFL.

So why the struggles? Reasons, not excuses. The combination of the line's inexperience working TOGETHER and Jack Coan's less-than-average escapability quotient is not an ideal combination. And Coan isn't as proficient as Ian Book was (yet) at getting the line into the right protections and recognizing blitzes. Tyler James is working on an offensive line analysis deep dive that posts Thursday morning. I'd advise reading that. This is a fixable problem. it's not a microwavable problem. We may see some personnel rotations and maybe even a change at some point. The numbers are ugly, I know. I understand the frustration. OK, as you were.

Derek from Columbus: Hi Eric. Why does Marcus Freeman keep going with three down lineman? There is so much more depth and skill on the D-line than at linebacker.

Eric Hansen: He likes to show the opposing offenses different looks, something he had great success with at Cincinnati. And some of those D-linemen are playing linebacker roles situationally.

Jeff from Phoenix: Hey Eric, I listened to Kelly's presser on Monday, and he said they need to work in more fresh players, so to rotate more. Two of the areas that are depleted due to injuries are O-line and linebacker/rover. Is there some reason why Prince Kollie and Rocco Spindler are not seeing action, as they generally fit those areas (I realize tackle and guard are not fully interchangeable)?  Both are at the top of the freshman talent and would seem to plug in fairly easily. Is Kollie fully available, as Kelly seemed to hem and haw a little last week when asked if he could fill in.

Eric Hansen: Hi Jeff. Kollie reportedly had COVID and is easing his way back into practice/conditioning. He won't be available this Saturday. I'm convinced Rocco Spindler will be a star. I'm also convinced it likely won't be in 2021. If he gets in the game, it will be as a guard.

Bert from Windermere, Fla.: Eric thank you for your chats and for the answer to my question last week. I had never heard that comment from Brian. It has really helped me. My question is what was your reaction to the decision to go for it on fourth and one near midfield. My reaction was that It was too risky in a close game in which the line was not helping the running game. I thought it was going back to the early Kelly years.

Eric Hansen: I think those plays generally gain approval when they work and look stupid when they don't, but I get your take on it. I didn't have a problem with it. Notre Dame should have been able to get a yard in that situation, and the defense was able to hold Toledo to a field goal. Last year, the Irish were 63% on fourth down conversions. That's what they need to be this year. So far, 1-of-3.

Brian from Mishawaka: Hi Eric. Outside of Alabama dominating everyone they've played, I feel like there's a lot more parity in college football this year (granted it's a bit early to tell probably). My theory is that teams with NFL-caliber players lost talent to the draft, but most other teams were largely able to keep their rosters intact due to the extra year of eligibility granted to everyone due to COVID (exemption). Would you agree with that observation, and do you think that trend will continue throughout the season? Will we finally see some new teams in the College Football Playoff?

Eric Hansen: I like your theory about the Super Seniors and parity. Toledo, for instance, had 22 players who were fifth, sixth and seventh-year seniors. Notre Dame has nine, and only two who used the COVID exemption for a fifth year. Toledo had 22 starters returning, and the Irish had nine. Now, I think that will result in more upsets and maybe some new teams from Nos. 5-25, but as far as 1-4, it still could end up Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma in some order.

Billy from Oakland, Calif.: Eric, do you think the ND administration was surprised by the sparse crowd at the Toledo game? I have read snippets on the internet that some of ND's most loyal and oldest supporters are bumfoozled by electronic ticketing and are walking away from ND. Also, from the internet I'm reading that the Peacock laid an egg. What will its future be in ND football? Lots of bad vibes surfacing from ND admin's latest decisions. What's your take?

Eric Hansen: Billy, it seems pretty prevalent throughout college football that stadiums were at less than capacity in these early games. I think there's definitely some COVID hesitancy, and I've heard from those folks. I have a request in to talk with Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, so I can get a little deeper with my answers after I speak with him. ... For now, I have not heard one positive comment about Peacock.

Tim from Pleasant Prairie, Wis.: Eric, saw your reply to Peter in Provo. ... I would then ask: Did he truly "hone" last year's line, or was that more of Chris Watt's doing? And if he was there "honing" that line, weren't some of the current line also there last year — even if not starters — to be coached up and more ready to go this year than they appear to be?

Eric Hansen: Tim, I think offensive lines with big personnel turnover are at a bigger disadvantage then usual this year because of COVID in 2020. What time they did have together (and there was no spring and very limited summer) had to be used primarily to get the 2020 team ready to play, not to develop the younger players. Jarrett Patterson's injury didn't help, as he was unable to participate in spring. He makes a big difference, his presence, and he'll continue to have that effect. Now Tim, I think the world of Chris Watt, but if he was more responsible for last year's line success than Jeff Quinn, then Tulane was not a big enough step up for him. Come on.

Denny from Liberty Hill, Texas: Hi Eric! I seem to remember that Marcus Freeman had an average, at best, first year with his defense (at Cincinnati). So maybe we are overreacting wanting the full success immediately. I am hoping this team can be patient and keep focused. Do you agree that us fans might be way overreacting and should actually expect reasonable improvement? I still think every game is winnable. Probably will rely on the offense more than usual.

Eric Hansen: Denny, that Florida State lost to Jacksonville State the next week is probably the hardest thing for ND fans to process. All four of Kelly's best teams (2012, 2015, 2018, 2020) had an early hiccup or two. I do think it's an overreaction. I do think the Purdue game, how ever it turns out, will be more telling about the season ahead.

Mark from Orange County, Calif.: Hi Eric. Thank you for hosting these chats. Purdue was able to shut out their last opponent and put up 49 points in the process. Is this the week ND's home winning streak comes to an end? Your thoughts?

Eric Hansen: Mark, I was more impressed with Purdue's season-opening win over Oregon State than I was their shutout of the 130th-rated team in the 130-team FBS per The Athletic (UConn). I think the home win streak lives on.

Mike from Rochester: Hi, Eric. Hope you and your family are all well. I remember how many people really questioned why Jonathan Doerer was coming back for another year. I, for one, am really happy he did. He’s been the Jonathan Doerer of old.  My question: is the O-line’s problem still a chemistry problem? Or the churn at left tackle? Or something else?

Eric Hansen: All of the above. There needs to be tangible progress this week. And it'll be interesting to see how the Tyler Buchner niche role plays into that.

Joe from Valparaiso, Ind.: Hello Eric. Love your measured, balanced, insightful writing. Perhaps this is a naïve question, but is it safe to surmise the "unavailability" of C'Bo Flemister and Prince Kollie are either COVID or discipline issues?

Eric Hansen: Thanks Joe. It is safe to assume, and Kollie's has been reported as COVID. C'Bo's has only been speculation.

Bill from Toronto: Eric, I loved Ian Book, and I really like Jack Coan, but I'm concerned about him behind this line. I think Coan could have been a huge difference-maker last year, but I can't see not playing Tyler Buchner more. What are your thoughts on the QB situation?

Eric Hansen: Hi Bill. My thoughts are exactly what I thought after the Blue-Gold Game, that a niche role for Buchner — if he could improve over the summer — made sense. He did, and it's here. The O-line's evolution (or lack of it) will play a role in which QB makes sense more of the time.

Al from Philly: I've only seen Tyler Buchner play twice — in the spring game and against Toledo. Each time he moved the team better than the other QBs. Should Tommy Rees have done more to get him ready to run the ND offense?

Eric Hansen: I think Rees and Buchner both did a tremendous job of getting Buchner ready. For a kid who played one year of high school football, his growth curve is impressive.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Eric, I popped my finger out. Can you help?

Eric Hansen: As long as you don't utter the words, "Pull my finger," because I know what comes next. I am impressed that fixing Jack Coan's dislocation was that easy actually. When I was in college, I dislocated my thumb playing hoops and they had to break it to put it back. Had to wear a splint for a few weeks. Jack Coan is good to go. Said he's feeling great.

Jeremy from LaPorte, Ind.: Which player or position group needs to step up the most and what do they have to do to improve?

Eric Hansen: Is this a trick question?

Jay from Elkhart: I know it's early, but it looks like most of ND's opponents are struggling and ND hasn't looked impressive so far. Does ND need a signature win or is avoiding a loss good enough for the playoff committee? Is there any scenario where an undefeated Irish team gets left out of the playoff?

Eric Hansen: I think what's most important for Notre Dame is to consistently improve each week. If the Irish do that, they will have a chance to win games against the better opponents. A 12-0 Irish team would make the playoff. But they have to become that team. They're not close at this point.

Larry from Goshen: There's two minutes left in the game this week. Would you rather have ND's defense on the field up by four or the offense on the field down by four?

Eric Hansen: If I'm Brian Kelly. I'd like the lead and take my chances with my defense.

Charles from Chicago: Which Purdue player are you most concerned with and how will ND have to stop them?

Eric Hansen: Wide receiver David Bell is a handful. They're not going to be able to man up on him, not repeatedly. Lots of help from Kyle Hamilton.

Jacob from Hobart, Ind.: The old cliché is that if you have 2 quarterbacks, you actually have none. I know Coan and Buchner have different strengths and both contributed last week, but do you think changing quarterbacks is an advantage or causing neither to find a rhythm?

Eric Hansen: There's a reason clichés are called clichés. ... I think there are instances where it's true about a QB situation and others where it's outright wrong. I've got a story up online about how Jack Coan feels about it, and he said it was easy for him to do.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, lots of questions after two subpar performances, but I will keep it to a minimum. Did you ever get an answer to why intentional grounding was not called at FSU?  Kelly said on Monday that they had to simplify things on both sides of the ball. I thought that was the narrative all spring and fall that Freeman's defense allowed the players to play more free?? What is the reality on the defensive side? It seems obvious that we need to keep a second tight end to help with blocking, especially on pass plays. Both Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer and even Joe Wilkins have shown that they can win 50-50 balls. Do you think that we will see more two-tight end sets? I don't know what percentage of plays Buchner ran last week, but let's say it was 10%.  Do you see him running more plays this week? Thanks. Go Irish!!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, I'm into overtime here, so let me go through these quickly. I still haven't had a chance to follow up on the FSU call and not sure when I can get to it. ... The players love the defense, but that doesn't mean they're familiar with all the nuances. If we're having this conversation in November, then something's wrong. ... I don't think you can run two tight ends all the time, without tipping your play calls, but you can rotate what you do — on one down use the second tight end, chip with a back on another, block with Avery Davis on another. ... Buchner played roughly 25 percent of the snaps against Toledo. His percentage will go up or down depending on what Purdue is doing defensively.

Marie from Atlanta: Hi Eric. I hope you're having a great week. I know growing pains should be expected on defense, with the implementation of a new scheme, but given the number of big plays given up in only two games, do you think Freeman should consider simplifying the scheme? I don't think the big plays were bad calls but, more often then not, errors in execution. Maybe uncomplicate it a bit until the D gets the hang of it better? Do you think the loss of another wide receiver (Lawrence Keys III) will effect  recruiting? I know maybe none of these guys were good enough to get a lot of playing time, but from an outsider's perception, it is not a good look. Also do you think poor crowds at the game affect recruiting? A visiting recruit this weekend might find it a little less exciting than the full and rocking stadiums of the SEC. Thanks for all your great work!

Eric Hansen: Hi Marie. Brian Kelly seems to think simplifying for now will help the defense become more consistent. I agree with that. I also think getting Jordan Botelho back helps. I don't think the wide receiver transfer thing is a big deal. They had a handful in the offseason, and then landed C.J. Williams, Tobias Merriweather and Amorion Walker in this recruiting cycle and are in on some really good 2023 kids. If they're transferring because of a toxic culture, that's one thing. If they're transferring because they want to play more, I think recruits get that. ... I don't think some empty seats during COVID is going to turn off a recruit. A bunch of people doing the golf clap, though, might.

Eric Hansen: That's going to do it for today. Thanks for all the great questions. Hopefully, I can get to a larger percentage of them next week. We'll be back to do it all over again next Wednesday at noon EDT.

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI