SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In retrospect, perhaps expecting Notre Dame’s offensive line to immediately jell together after losing its three most experienced players was a bit unfair.
Offensive lines need a couple of games to nail down how to effectively work together. That means some combination of making the right play calls and getting players on the same page with combination blocks.
For Notre Dame, its offensive line has done some good things through two weeks but hasn't played to its potential just yet. That's understandable, though, given every offensive lineman is playing next to somebody new this year.
“Individually they're pretty good and they know their assignments,” coach Brian Kelly said. “It's when to come off a block, when to stay on something and that's where it will continue to get better.”
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey (16 starts) and left guard Quenton Nelson (13 starts) are Notre Dame’s two most experienced offensive linemen, but they hadn’t played in a game next to each other until Sept. 4’s opener against Texas. Center Sam Mustipher and right guard Colin McGovern each made their first career starts in Austin, while right tackle Alex Bars started two games at left guard in 2015.
Through 2016’s first two games, Notre Dame’s offensive line has an opportunity rate of 40.2 percent (65th in FBS), which is explained by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly below:
“This is the percentage of carries in which the offensive line "does its job" and produces at least five yards of rushing for the runner. (Generally speaking, the first five yards are considered the line's responsibility, the next five are split evenly between the runner and the line, and anything over 10 yards is all on the runner.)”
Last year, Notre Dame’s offensive line — with top-50 NFL Draft picks in Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, as well as veteran right guard Steve Elmer — ranked 4th in opportunity rate.
But Notre Dame’s 2016 offensive line has, so far, actually done a better job in short-yardage situations than last year’s group did. Notre Dame has picked up a first down or touchdown on 100 percent of its runs on third or fourth down with two or fewer yards to go, or any run on a first/second/third/fourth-and-goal play from inside the opponent’s two-yard line. In 2015, Notre Dame’s offensive only converted the necessary yardage on two-thirds of those plays (58th in FBS).
And Notre Dame is only being stuffed for no gain or a loss on 13.5 percent of its runs this year (24th(, down from 20.5 percent of 2015’s rushing attempts (87th).
Of course, parts of these numbers and where Notre Dame grades out in them is dependent on Tarean Folston, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire. But they do show that Harry Hiestand’s O-line has both plenty of potential and room for improvement going forward.
For McGlinchey — who’s been pegged as a potential 2017 first- or second-round NFL Draft pick — he knows what the expectations are, but isn’t focusing on hitting them. The same can probably said for the rest of this offensive line as it comes together in mid-September.
“I'm not up here playing left tackle to fill the shoes of Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin,” McGlinchey said. “If I try to do that, it's probably not going to work out for me too well. So those guys were special players and I'm going to be hopefully a special player in my own right.
“But I can't focus on the expectations that are put on me because of the first two guys that have been here before me. Obviously there is an expectation when you're the veteran and the captain and you have to know your job at all times and perform at the highest level. That's what I'm trying to do each and every week. It's a matter of focusing on what's important and not those lofty expectations that will help me exceed them.”