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Let's Talk About the Challenge to Start at Offensive Line

A lot of linemen have cycled through Notre Dame in recent year but how many have made an impact on the field?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

"Yay, another 4-star offensive lineman."

You can only recruit so well for so long before you start making that comment somewhat sarcastically after yet another Notre Dame commit on the offensive line. Am I the only one?

While there have been some depth concerns in the past (we'll get to that in a second) there's been plenty of talent coming through South Bend on the offensive line. For example, the 2002 to 2011 classes featured 35 offensive linemen as listed by Rivals. Only 12 of them were 3-star recruits. That's a lot of nationally ranked linemen.

The thing with the offensive line--and the reason why I can't help but yawn a little bit when another highly touted kid verbals to Notre Dame--is that by definition there isn't a ton of playing time available even with 5 guys starting at a time. In modern times, there's virtually no rotation and this means it's inevitable that the once shiny recruit has a decent chance of never making an impact over his career.

But how much of a chance, I wondered?

Well, out of those 35 linemen mentioned above (I stopped at the 2010 class which has graduated although it does include Nick Martin who will play a 5th season this fall) a full 14 of them (or 40%) never started a single game for Notre Dame.

Now, that does include Emeka Nwankwo (played D-line), Chase Hounshell (played D-line, now tight end), Derek Landri (played D-line), Troy Niklas (played linebacker then tight end), and Matt James (tragically died before reporting as a freshman). Still, 9 players never started a single game--including 5 players not mentioned above who were 4-star recruits coming out of high school.

This breaks down to roughly 3 O-line recruits per year with one of those players never starting over their career.

Additionally, another 4 players (3 of whom were 4-stars) never made it to 10 career starts. And it wasn't close as Jamie Ryan, Matt Carufel, and Matt Romine each logged 3 starts apiece and Conor Hanratty got to 7 starts. Add it all up and almost half of the offensive linemen have come and gone over this time period without ever doing much for Notre Dame.

This is why I find offensive line recruiting so frustrating. The Irish should head into next off-season with ~12 offensive linemen and a 2016 target of 3 more bodies to help out. Some are wondering if we should add a fourth body and all I can think of is looking at the numbers and history at least one of them will never play and it wouldn't be crazy if 2 out of those 4 freshmen never become serious contributors.

I know, I know the depth is great for practice and all that. This is where somebody probably cites the run-up to the 2012 National Title Game and how there wasn't enough depth to scrimmage intensely. That's all well and fine.

But I do wonder how the tremendously healthy depth chart currently seen at Notre Dame will affect some of the stats mentioned above. The 2012 class through the current 2016 class features another 15 linemen with only 4 of them being Rivals 3 stars--and that includes Liam Eichenberg who most assuredly will not finish as a 3-star this cycle and is currently getting the Trumbetti treatment by Rivals.

Of course, the depth at Notre Dame wasn't always that great.

The 2002-05 run was pretty awful all things considered. Five out of those 11 players never picked up a single start, and 4 of them were 3-stars. Basically, it was Ryan Harris (45 starts), John Sullivan (43 starts), and Bob Morton (39 starts) in the middle of some very lean times.

[stares fiercely at Tyrone Willingham]

Along with the nature of the position there was still a fair amount of hit and miss through the Weis era, too. Players like Bartley Webb, Matt Carufel, Andrew Nuss, Matt Romine, Lane Clelland, and Alex Bullard all left without much to say on the field.

And this brings us back to the latest coach and the frustration. Among the first two Kelly classes only Tate Nichols (3-star) stayed on the line and struggled to get on the field before medically retiring. But what's going to happen to the remaining players on the roster? There's a tendency to look at all the players and neatly map out all the eligibility so everyone gets their shot but it's not realistic at all.

Mark Harrell likely will finish his career without ever starting as he currently enters his senior year. Then you have the outstanding 2013 class which has already developed 2 starters but will Montelus, Bivin, or McGovern ever start or see significant minutes? Sure, they have 3 years left but they're also entering year 3 and a couple of younger players have surpassed them on the depth chart. Bivin is probably the closest to seeing the field but he'll probably need two injuries at tackle just to get a start so the odds are he'll enter his senior season without doing so. We're talking about a top 100 recruit here!

Similarly, the battle at center between Mustipher and Hoge brings me similar thoughts. There's a (roughly) 74.6% chance that one of them will be the starter after 2015 while the other one barely sees the field moving forward. There's a (roughly) 27.8% chance one of them starts at center but injuries pave the way for the other to see some action. Anyway, you get the point, right? The odds are much more in favor one guys plays and the other does not.

This is why offensive line recruiting currently has me so ho hum and I know it shouldn't be that way. It's just so difficult to earn a starting spot and the depth chart is so stacked right now. I see 15 or 16 bodies--and while there's clear benefits to having that depth in practice--all I can do is think about those who won't play and wish there were a couple more bodies to use elsewhere on the roster.