2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 78 of 163

BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ✦ 77 BY ANDREW MENTOCK A fter battling the Georgia Bulldogs in front of a record crowd of 93,246 at Sanford Stadium, the Fighting Irish walked off the field lamenting a narrow 23-17 defeat. Notre Dame had out- performed national expectations, but failed to meet their own. As the excitement and buzz from a hard- fought game wore off, onlookers gradu- ally lofted criticism at the team, especially toward the offensive line, which detractors said wasn't physical enough to establish the run and pointed out that the six penalty flags the position group was responsible for. Many questioned if Jeff Quinn, the offensive line coach, was the right person for the job. This type of criticism, for better or for worse, has become par for the course for a Notre Dame offensive line under head coach Brian Kelly. Both fans and the coaching staff hold that unit to a standard of excellence that doesn't exist anywhere else in the program. That's why, no matter how well the offen- sive line performed week in and week out, this level of denunciation followed them through- out the 2019 season. Even after the seven play- ers to start along the line last season graded out No. 2 in pass blocking per Pro Football Focus, detractors were only more fervent in their feedback on the unit's run blocking. "The standard is the standard," said Trevor Ruhland, an occasional starter at offensive guard in 2018 and 2019. "It's super high. We ranked as one of the best pass-blocking O- lines last year, and I still feel like people were mad about our performance." Perhaps this overtly critical eye occurred from a decade of watching some of the best offensive linemen in the world develop and flourish at Notre Dame. Three members of the 2015 unit — Ron- nie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Mike Mc- Glinchey — went on to become top-10 NFL Draft picks and, along with center Nick Martin (a second-round pick in his own right), that group has signed for more than $100 million in NFL contracts. Two years later, the unit took home the Joe Moore Award, presented annually to college football's best offensive line. Then there's Zack Martin, the No. 16 over- all pick in 2014. After starting at left tackle for Notre Dame for four seasons, he went on to be considered the best offensive guard in the NFL for much of the past decade. Martin continued his dominance through last season when, along with Nelson and Stanley, he was named a first-team All-Pro. It's unparalleled for this much greatness at the professional level to come from one pro- gram, at least in the modern era. Technically, the program established its prowess as an NFL offensive line factory when Joe Moore (whom the award is named after) coached the position from 1988-96. Only two of his starters didn't play in the NFL. Those who did include highly respected names such as Aaron Taylor, Tim Ruddy and Andy Heck— now the offensive line coach for the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. But this level of offensive line play didn't exist at Notre Dame when head coach Brian Kelly took over. "It's always been such a tradition-rich room," said ESPN's Mike Golic Jr., who played offensive guard at Notre Dame from 2008-12. "Unfortunately, when I got to Notre Dame, we were at a time period where the team wasn't performing as well. "The offensive line, while we had a bunch of great players, wasn't looked at the same." Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of continuity. In Golic's five seasons at Notre Dame, which spanned the end of Charlie Weis' tenure and the beginning of Kelly's, he had four different position coaches. That all changed in 2012 when Harry Hies- tand was hired and immediately changed the culture of the room. By design, he encouraged all of the offensive linemen to be inseparable from one another, whether they were walking to class or eating lunch. "If you're going to have five guys see ev- erything through one set of eyes, then you've got to build that over a long time of working together in the weight room," Golic Jr. said. "We would all watch film together after prac- tice to make sure that if one of us was going to see something on tape, everyone was going to be aware of it." After the 2017 season, Hiestand left for the Chicago Bears (he has since been fired) and Quinn was given the thankless task of suc- ceeding one of the best offensive line coaches in the country, part of the reason why he's borne the brunt of the unit's criticism. Quinn and the offensive line have a shot at redemption in 2020, at least when it comes to changing public perception. Six returning offensive linemen have a combined 114 starts under their belts, and Lindy's College Football 2020 National Preview ranks the unit as the best in the country. Expectations are also exceedingly high when it comes to the unit's two fifth-year seniors: left tackle Liam Eichenberg and right guard Tommy Kraemer. According to most 2021 NFL mock drafts, the pair has the most upside among Notre Dame offensive line- men, which puts an extra pressure on their shoulders. The 'Workaholic' Eichenberg wore a sweaty blue T-shirt "It's always been such a tradition-rich room. … If you're going to have five guys see everything through one set of eyes, then you've got to build that over a long time of working together in the weight room." ESPN'S MIKE GOLIC JR. ON THE IRISH OFFENSIVE LINE

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