Entering the 2017 season, the strength of the Notre Dame offense was supposed to be the offensive line. Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson both may be high picks in the next NFL draft. Center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars are seniors and the group is coached by the well-respected Harry Hiestand.
After week one, things seemed to be playing out exactly as planned. There were some issues at right tackle, but the Irish rushed for 422 yards against Temple and the sizable running lanes opened up for the ND backs was the primary reason.
Then Georgia came to town.
It wasn’t just that Notre Dame had 367 fewer yards on the ground than the previous week. That only told part of the story. For the most part, Irish runners had nowhere to go as running lanes were clogged all night long. And poor line play affected more than just the backs.
Quarterback Brandon Wimbush did not play well, but he was not helped by his blockers either. When he looked to take off with the ball, there was nothing. Plus, the Georgia front applied considerable pressure when Wimbush looked to throw.
No play epitomized the Irish struggles more than the final sack that sealed the win for the Bulldogs. With Notre Dame needing roughly 30 yards to get into game-winning field goal range, Georgia’s Davin Bellamy easily raced around McGlinchey to force a fumble on his sack of Wimbush. ND’s best offensive lineman was beaten on the most important play of the game.
Going forward, this can’t continue. Notre Dame has some nice backs and a top receiver in Equanimeous St. Brown. But Wimbush is still learning and the receiving options after St. Brown aren’t exactly elite. If the Irish are to have any offensive success in 2017, they will have to be led by their line.
Unfortunately for those that love the Irish, this is not a one-game problem. Despite all the talent up front, the Irish struggled at times last year. They were 80th in rushing offense in 2016 and 71st in sacks allowed. Those are not stats that point to a dominant offensive line. Plus, when you go 4-8 at ND, even the best part of your team isn’t really that good.
As a result, questions about the Irish line have emerged. Is Hiestand really that good of an offensive line coach? Is there a problem with the overall offensive scheme that puts the linemen in bad spots? Or is the talent level – particularly the skills of McGlinchey and Nelson – overrated?
It is true that Georgia has a very good defense and the Bulldogs are tough to block. But several other formidible fronts are on the horizon. Boston College and 2016 national sack leader Harold Landry is up next. Michigan State follows and teams like NC State, USC, Miami and Stanfordalso will be a challenge. The Notre Dame line doesn’t have to be as good as it was against Temple. But for this to be a successful season in any way, shape, or form, this group must be much better than it was in week two.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.