Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 42 of 47 JANUARY 2021 43 IRISH IN THE PROS NOTRE DAME IN THE NFL: WEEK 16 HIGHLIGHTS • Matthias Farley (Played at Notre Dame from 2011-15), DB, New York Jets: Registered five tackles and two passes defended in the 2-13 Jets' 23-16 win over the Cleveland Browns … Has recorded 21 stops, two passes defended and a quarterback hit through 15 games. • Julian Okwara (2016-19), DE, Detroit Lions: Returned from the injured reserve list and recorded two tackles (one for loss) in the 5-10 Lions' 47-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. • Jaylon Smith (2013-15), LB, Dallas Cowboys: Led all players with 11 stops, plus notched a fumble recovery and a quarterback hit, in the 6-9 Cowboys' 37-17 win over the Philadelphia Eagles … On the season, he has 144 tackles (third in the NFL), 1.5 sacks, four passes defended, a forced fumble and three quarterback hits. • Equanimeous St. Brown (2015-17), WR, Green Bay Packers: Hauled in one catch for 21 yards and his first career touchdown in the 12-3 Packers' 40-14 win over the Tennessee Titans … Has seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown, one carry for seven yards, and one tackle on special teams in nine games this season. BY ANDREW MENTOCK I n 2019, the NFL futures of of- fensive linemen Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher were in doubt. That fall, Bars played on special teams in five games and regis- tered just 12 offensive snaps (one of which only occurred because starting left tackle Charles Leno "had an apparent shoe prob- lem"). Mustipher, on the other hand, spent the entirety of the season on the practice squad. The duo, which started along the Notre Dame offensive line from 2016-18, signed with the Chicago Bears that spring as undrafted free agents to be coached by a familiar face: Harry Hiestand. Of course, Hiestand worked for six years (2012-17) as Notre Dame's offensive line coach and overlapped with Bars and Mustipher for four seasons, before accepting the same position with the Bears after the completion of the 2017 college football season. At the end of 2019, Hiestand was fired by the Bears, prompting some questions on how this would im- pact his longtime pupils in Bars and Mustipher — who appeared to be fringe NFL players. The first half of 2020 almost mir- rored 2019, with Bars mostly suiting up for special teams and Mustipher relegated to the practice squad. Worse, the Bears possessed one of the poorest offensive lines in the NFL for the first two months of the season. "For all the hand-wringing over the quarterback and [head coach] Matt Nagy's play calling, the Bears' core is- sues begin in the trenches," ESPN's Jeff Dickerson wrote on Nov. 5. "A group that was not viewed favorably has been beset by injuries and COVID-19. "The Bears enter week nine ranked 31st in rushing yards per game (85.6), 29th in yards per rush (3.8) and 32nd in yards per rush before contract (2.1), ac- cording to ESPN Stats & Information." By that time, Mustipher had been elevated from the practice squad onto the team's active roster after starting left guard James Daniels was put on injured reserve. He then made his first career start at center in the 26-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 1. After that, he was sidelined with a knee injury, and Bars actually started in his place the following week on the road in a 24-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans. It was the first time the second-year offensive lineman had played center. Even given his lack of experi- ence, Bars played surprisingly well. "First, you have to say what a great job the kid did," Bears of- fensive line coach Juan Castillo said after the game. "He had never started at the center posi- tion, even in high school, so this is really the first game he ever started at that position. "I was really proud of him, probably one of the best perfor- mances I have ever been around as a coach." When Mustipher returned to the lineup against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 29, Bars was in at guard, and the two started their first game together since Bars tore his ACL and MCL in Notre Dame's 38-17 win over Stan- ford on Sept. 29, 2018. Since the start of November 2020, Bars and Mustipher have a combined 15 starts for the Bears, including starting together in each of the last six games this season. In that time, the team's ground attack has shown a steady improvement, jumping to 25th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (102.9) and 21st in yards per attempt (4.2). There are very few guarantees in the NFL, especially when it comes to undrafted offensive linemen, but it's a safe bet that Bars and Mustipher have established themselves in the league and are in solid positions to contribute to the Bears again in 2021 thanks to their grit, production and ability to be a reliable teammate. "[Mustipher] and Bars, I think the energy that those guys bring shows up on tape," Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson told NBC Sports. "We see those guys helping guys up, we see those guys constantly being around the ball, if it's downfield on a pass play or if it's a run play that gets a tackle for loss or it's an explosive run. "You always see those guys around the ball, and I think that's something that doesn't go unnoticed." ✦ Bars (No. 64) and Mustipher (No. 67) have been mainstays in the Bears' starting lineup since Nov. 29, helping the team improve its rushing attack and earn a playoff berth with a three-game winning streak in December. PHOTO COURTESY CHICAGO BEARS Alex Bars And Sam Mustipher Revamp Bears Offensive Line

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