2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 147 of 163

146 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2019 FOOTBALL PREVIEW 1 Offensive Line Haul Paves The Way Landing top-notch offensive line hauls is no surprise at Notre Dame, but this class was one of the best of all time in South Bend. Blue & Gold Illustrated ranked the unit as the fourth-best group at Notre Dame since 1964, when linemen stopped going both ways. Quenton Nelson was the first to emerge as a starter, earning the left guard role as a sophomore in 2015. His powerful run blocking helped the Irish finish that year with 207.6 rushing yards per game. Pro Football Focus graded him out as the nation's 13th-best guard, and he was just getting started, earning Associated Press and Sports Illustrated second-team All-America honors follow- ing the 2016 campaign. Nelson returned for his senior season and became Notre Dame's first unanimous All-American on the offensive line since Aaron Taylor back in 1993. He fueled a 2017 ground game that rolled to 269.5 yards per game. Nelson missed two games with an ankle injury in 2015, and he was replaced by classmate Alex Bars. The following season, Bars took over as the team's starting right tackle. His move to right guard for the 2017 season gave the Irish arguably the best guard tandem in the nation. A knee injury ended his 2018 season after just five games. When Bars went down he was playing the best football of his career. He finished his Notre Dame career with 32 career starts at three different positions. Sam Mustipher took over at center in 2016 and lined up as the starter there for 38 straight games. Mustipher teamed up with Nelson and Bars to give the Irish a potent inside group in 2017, and they were all vital cogs on a unit that won the Joe Moore Award that season, which goes to the best offensive line in college football. All three blockers earned the role of captain during their time at Notre Dame. 2 Leading The Way The 2014 class didn't just lead the way to a pair of the best Notre Dame ground attacks of the last 20 years, but also provided leadership across the board. Seven different members of the 2014 class earned captain honors, and linebacker Drue Tranquill earned the distinction for both the 2017 and 2018 seasons. This is the first time a single Notre Dame class has produced that many team captains. That leadership was needed after the Irish went 4-8 during the 2016 season, the black eye on the otherwise overall success of the class. The program was in shambles, and many believed head coach Brian Kelly was on his last leg. The staff overhaul following that season gets a lot of the credit for the turnaround that ensued — a 22-4 run in 2017-18. The leadership and production from so many members of the 2014 class also played a significant role. 3 Front Four Woes The offensive line wasn't the only group that produced three captains. A trio of linebackers also received the honor: Tranquill, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini. Unfortunately, the setbacks along the seven-man defensive line haul created depth issues for years to come. Only defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner started for multiple seasons, and end Jay Hayes was the only other defensive lineman who was a full- time starter for a season. Nose tackle Daniel Cage and end Andrew Trumbetti were spot starters, and a concussion ended Cage's career following the 2016 campaign. Two of the linemen transferred out before the start of the 2016 campaign, and two more left as graduate transfers. So many misses in this class resulted in players from the 2016, 2017 and 2018 classes being thrust into the rotation earlier than expected. Loaded With Leaders A lack of depth in the 2014 class overshadowed the school-record number of captains it provided BY BRYAN DRISKELL N otre Dame was coming off a 21-5 stretch when the 2014 class signed, and strong hauls along both lines were ex- pected to fuel the program for years to come. The offensive line and linebacker units panned out in a major way, and for a brief stretch, the 2014 class provided Notre Dame with impressive quarterback play as well. Unfortunately, the lack of skill position talent on both sides of the ball and the struggles of the majority of the defensive linemen limited the overall impact of this recruiting class. Year-By-Year Record 2014: 8-5, Music City Bowl vs. LSU (W, 31-28). Final Rankings: AP unranked, Coaches unranked 2015: 10-3, Fiesta Bowl vs. Ohio State (L, 44-28). Final Rankings: AP No. 11, Coaches No. 12 2016: 4-8, Final Rankings: AP unranked, Coaches unranked 2017: 10-3, Citrus Bowl vs. LSU (W, 21-17). Final Rankings: AP No. 11, Coaches No. 11 2018: 12-1, College Football Playoff semifinal at Cotton Bowl vs. Clemson (L, 30-3). Final Rankings: AP No. 5, Coaches No. 5 Top Storylines

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