SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before going any further, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, Will Fuller said last November he would return to Notre Dame for his senior season before deciding in January to declare for the NFL Draft. And yes, on Wednesday, Mike McGlinchey said he intends to return to Notre Dame as a fifth-year graduate student and play for the Irish in 2017.
But McGlinchey volunteered his stay-in-school mindset, whereas Fuller said “no” when asked prior to last year’s final home game if it would be his last at Notre Dame Stadium. And Fuller was at the top of his game last year at Notre Dame, while McGlinchey has been good in 2016 but still has room to improve.
(The biggest knock against Fuller last year was his suspect hands; chances are, those wouldn’t have improved with another year at Notre Dame. And it’s clear Fuller made the right choice in turning pro: He looks like an early Rookie of the Year frontrunner with 19 catches, 323 yards and three touchdowns, one of which came on a punt return.)
McGlinchey allowed that his mindset could still change, but if it does, it won’t be because of any NFL Draft projections even if those are favorable to him right now. ESPN’s Todd McShay ranks McGlinchey No. 22 on his 2017 big board (Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer is No. 18, right guard Quenton Nelson is No. 19); CBS Sports Rob Rang and Dane Brugler have McGlinchey being picked No. 31 and No. 19 overall next year (they both have Kizer being the first pick); WalterFootball.com has McGlinchey going No. 13 to the Chicago Bears.
Instead, if McGlinchey were to decide to turn pro after the 2016 season, it’d be because he personally feels ready for it.
"It's not going to come down to a projection for me," McGlinchey said. "It's going to come down to a mindset and a look in the mirror of whether or not I am ready to go, and based off of what I'm feeling now, I'm pretty confident that I'll be back here for a fifth year."
In short: McGlinchey is committed to staying at Notre Dame in 2017, and the odds are likely in favor of him sticking to that commitment. So it’s fair for those inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to start drooling over how the Irish offense could look next fall.
If McGlinchey and Nelson both return, Notre Dame would keep every one of its 2016 offensive linemen except for reserve swingman Mark Harrell. That would mean this unit would return at least 87 starts and as many as 92 if Notre Dame makes a bowl game this year. And if the starting five from this year remains the same next year, every one would be a senior or graduate student: McGlinchey (grad), Nelson (redshirt junior), Sam Mustipher (redshirt junior), Colin McGovern (grad) and Alex Bars (redshirt junior).
That experience and cohesiveness could be a huge boost to Notre Dame’s ground game, with Josh Adams and Dexter Williams — who haven’t been as effective as expected this year — becoming upperclassmen in 2017. But more importantly, a McGlinchey-led offensive line stocked with veterans would provide an important cushion for expected starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush if Kizer turns pro.
Kizer, for what it’s worth, said Wednesday he hasn’t paid attention to any national hype of him being a first-round — and maybe the first overall — pick.
“We have so much going on with our game plan and so much that we're trying to get accomplished, trying to get some wins put together that my focus has been nothing but on our offense, no thoughts have even come across with the national attention that you say I have,” Kizer said. “I’ve been so focused up on what we can do to get wins, that none of that has come across my mind.”
Couple that offensive line with known returning players in Adams, Williams, wide receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, C.J Sanders, Corey Holmes, Miles Boykin, Chris Finke, Kevin Stepherson, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley, and tight ends Alize Jones, Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, and that has the look of an elite, explosive offense no matter who the quarterback is (and there’s an argument to be made Wimbush is the most talented quarterback on Notre Dame’s current roster). That list doesn’t count, either, potential fifth-year players in running back Tarean Folston, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. and tight end Durham Smythe, too, and only Stepherson, Claypool and McKinley would have underclassmen status.
In that super-talented and experienced group, McGlinchey would stand out as a leader. He’d be Notre Dame’s fourth two-year captain in the Brian Kelly era, following Zack Martin, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day.
“Mike McGlinchey is one of the best leaders I've ever been around,” Kizer said. “He has the verbal presence, the size, the ability to truly take over a team. And all the way across the board, on offense, defense, special teams, he leads us completely. His experience and his ability to understand what he's good at and what he's not good at and to coach us up out on the field allows us in our quarterback room and at the skill positions to rely on someone who's going to be a rock to us and kind of a cornerstone for our offense.”
Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes ended three weeks into the 2016 season, and heading into this weekend’s game against North Carolina State, the Irish have about a 50-50 chance of becoming bowl eligible (according to S&P+ projections). Predicting a playoff push when Notre Dame may finish below .500 this year is an awfully positive outlook, of course. But next year’s re-load could be massive; a McGlinchey return would give this offense an outrageously good outlook. Hire an experienced college defensive coordinator (looking your way, Dave Aranda) and maybe this defense is, like Notre Dame's 2012 offense, simply good enough to support a playoff run.