Replacing three starters and moving captain Mike McGlinchey from Right Tackle to Left Tackle proved to be too much for the Fighting Irish Offensive Line in ‘16. They went into the season being labelled by many as the best unit in the country. I wouldn’t say the squad played terribly, but they certainly lacked cohesion, consistency, and focus. These deficiencies from the offensive line helped contribute to a stalled run game and too much pressure on DeShone Kizer.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of talent in this group. The 6’8, 310 pound McGlinchey may have been a 1st round pick had he declared for the ‘17 NFL Draft. Quenton Nelson, who just recently announced that he is officially returning to South Bend for his senior year, was easily a Top-3 Guard in the nation this year and received a 2nd round grade by NFL analysts. Alex Bars, despite it all, quietly put together a decent season.
It was the small things that bit the Irish OL this season and it all starts with an embarrassing 24 false starts (extremely surprising for a Harry Heistand group). There were also some snap issues at crucial times in games with first-year starter Sam Mustipher who, as a result, heard it from the fans. There seemed to be miscues often and Alex Bars ran into trouble with speed rushers at times.
Irish fans were left shocked, angry and disappointed.
The 2016 Offensive Line was an inexperienced group. This year, Harry Heistand’s boys will have a lot of starts under their belts, some very intriguing and talented sophomores grinding for playing time and a huge want to show the college football world that they are an elite group.
The Left Coast
There’s a clear picture of who the starters will be on the left side and Brian Kelly is very lucky to have them back. Although Nelson and McGlinchey had their struggles last year, I would expect the imposing duo to put it behind them, train hard through the off season, and come into the fall focused and ready to dominate. We could very well see both players get picked in the first round of the 2018 Draft.
The Center position is going to go one of two ways. Kelly and Heistand could hand the keys back to Sam Mustipher who didn’t make many post-snap mistakes and showed well in the run game. They could, however, be impressed by a well prepared Tristan Hoge who finally plays up to his #1 high school Center billing. Either way, they should be fairly solid at the position. There’s some speculation out there that Sam Mustipher could slide out to Guard as he showed promise as a solid run blocker with good lateral quickness.
Fight On The Right
Right Guard. This is where things get complicated. Colin McGovern started most games last year but suffered injuries, something that has been a regular occurrence throughout his career. He graduates this year and although he is a 5th year candidate, most believe he will not return. Hunter Bivin also saw time here and is also a 5th year candidate. He is more likely to return but hasn’t shown that he is a starting caliber player. There is some talk that Bars, who can be exposed wide, may slide into Guard, a position that may be more suitable for him. Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer were two of the best offensive lineman in the ‘16 recruiting class. Both will certainly be candidates to start at this position, Kraemer more so than Eichenberg who projects as a Tackle.
There will be an all out dog fight at RG as there was last year.
The situation at Right Tackle is also interesting. I could certainly see Alex Bars start again in ‘17. The 6’6, 320 pound kid out of Tennessee certainly has the talent. When Brian Kelly was asked in a press conference late in the season which scout player was impressing him the most, Kelly instantly said "Liam Eichenberg." This statement leads me to believe that sliding Bars to RG and beginning to groom Liam may be a very solid possibility. Tommy Kraemer is also a possibility. The Army All-American was ranked as the 27th recruit in the nation by 247 Sports.
Another thing to note is that if Mustipher does move to RG, look for Heistand to possibly start cross-training Parker Boudreaux at Centre. He has the stature and skill set to play there in the future and provide a back-up option for Tristan Hoge.
Prediction for the starting lineup:
LT - McGlinchey
LG - Nelson
C - Mustipher
RG - Kraemer
RT - Bars
Harry Heistand has been stockpiling depth along the offensive line since he was hired in 2012. He has hand-picked 8 high school All-Americans. I feel much more confident in this group going into this season as opposed to last.