By: Kyle Gibson

As much as we love the flash and excitement of athletic QBs, strong arms, speedy WRs, catches that leave us speechless, and RBs that shake and bake, there’s no question that games are still won in the trenches. Look no further than the two biggest games in football this year for proof. Both the National Championship and Super Bowl revolved around battles at the line of scrimmage. A susceptible line on either side of the ball can have devastating effects no matter how much talent litters the field elsewhere. The best example in college football is Alabama. The Tide finds itself at the top or very close to it at the end of every year thanks to the recruiting and development of their big boys in the trenches.

Heading into 2016 the Irish are looking to fill some big shoes on both the offensive and defensive lines. Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin depart the O-Line along with Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara on the D-Line. It’s also now being reported that Steve Elmer will be hanging up his cleats in pursuit of a different career path which will leave another opening on the Irish offensive line. So what will these fronts look like next season?

Naturally there’s usually a bit of concern when losing your three most experienced offensive lineman but it’s not always a cause for alarm, especially in a program that understands the need for depth and development at the position. Notre Dame has somewhat quietly reeled in one of the best OL classes each of the past three years in recruiting. It’s gotten to the point that we actually forget how highly touted most of these guys were coming out of high school. But while we’ve been consumed with the names of the current starting five or focused on the newest wave of recruits, these reserve lineman waiting in the wings have been developing under the instruction of one of the best O-Line coaches in the country. They’ve also been fortunate enough to watch and learn from multiple future NFL starters playing ahead of them.

Although there will be a dramatic drop in the overall experience of the offensive line there will be no shortage of talent or size. In fact, the 2016 Irish O-Line could shake out to be the biggest line there’s been under Kelly or at ND period in a very long time. Only a couple of years ago the Irish O-Line was composed mainly of 6’3-6’4 guys with a max height of 6’5 that struggled to reach an average weight of 300lbs (310lbs was the heaviest). Taking a look at the roster now, you can’t find a lineman that weighs less than 300lbs and the average height is 6’5 with most of the starters standing above that. The two returning starters from last season are Mike McGlinchey listed at a beastly 6’7.5” 310lbs on last season’s roster and Quenton Nelson at 6’5” 325lbs. McGlinchey will no doubt stay at tackle but could flip over to the left side in Stanley’s vacated spot and Nelson should stay at left guard lined up beside him. At center there will be a battle to replace Nick Martin between last season’s back-up Sam Mustipher (6’2.5” 305lbs) and young rising Sophomore Tristen Hoge (6’4.5” 300lbs) who was impressive during his redshirt year after arriving as the top rated center in the country.

The right side of the line may feel like more of a mystery but there’s already a duo poised to step in. Alex Bars (6’6” 320lbs) was locked about dead even in competition with Quenton Nelson in camp last year. Nelson eventually got the nod to start at guard last season but Bars was still considered the line’s “6th man” and even logged two starts. He’ll be the favorite to take over at right guard but many still like the idea of him at tackle. Either way Bars will be in the starting five. What may keep him inside at guard is rising Senior Hunter Bivin (6’5.5” 310lbs) who played in all but one game last season as Stanley’s back-up at left tackle. Bivin began his career being groomed by now 2x NFL Pro-Bowler Zack Martin before teaming up with Ronnie Stanley who’s projected as a first rounder in this year’s draft. The combination of experience, tutelage, and ability make it tough to imagine anyone beating out Bivin for a starting role. Both Bars and Bivin are versatile athletic lineman with the ability to play inside or out so there could be some experimentation but bets are that they’ll be the “new” names at guard and tackle.

Although they’ll be lacking a salty long time starter like the Irish have had on the O-Line most every year recently, it will be a good looking group on paper heading into camp. They’ll need to build some chemistry and settle into their roles but this group will be one of the most athletic and versatile O-Lines the Irish have had in a while. Here’s how my projected starting five looks compared to the size of the group that won the National Championship for Alabama. I like using their line as a comparison because they’ve been the best unit in the country for years and the Tide’s continued success is a direct result of their dominance on the O-Line. Keep in mind these measurements are from last season and have likely already changed and will continue to through off-season training.

Projected Irish O-Line 2016/Alabama O-Line 2015
LT- Mike McGlinchey (Sr.) 6’7.5 310lbs/ 6’6 326lbs
LG- Quenton Nelson (Jr.) 6’5 325lbs/ 6’4 298lbs
C- Tristen Hoge (So.) 6’4.5 300lbs/ 6’5 297lbs
RG- Alex Bars (Jr.) 6’6 320lbs/ 6’5 325lbs
RT- Hunter Bivin (Sr.) 6’5.5 310lbs/ 6’6 315lbs

You’ll see they stack up pretty evenly in terms of size. I feel pretty confident in this group of five but there’s big potential for some musical chairs here. McGlinchey could very well stay at RT which would leave the all important LT spot up for grabs. I feel like someone with experience would be preferred there so if that is the case, I’d project Bars moving outside and taking that role. That situation would move Bivin inside where I think he would get big competition from rising Senior Colin McGovern (6’5 315lbs). That will be my one alternate scenario.

Flipping to the other side of the ball things get a bit more complicated for a variety of reasons. Unlike the O-Line which is typically a set starting five that doesn’t substitute much at all except for injuries and mop-up time, the D-Line rotates players often. Not only are different players frequently rotating in but there’s a mix of formations and specialty packages that feature situational players or specialists.
Heading into next season there’s a pretty obvious primary front four on defense based on what we’ve seen the past two years. Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones are sure things with Rochell slipping back out to DE. Although his development seemed to stall a little bit after being the hottest name in camp last year, rising Sophomore Jerry Tillery will likely easily win the starting role inside next to Jones. It’s the other DE spot that will create the most speculation this off-season. Andrew Trumbetti is the favorite to earn the starting gig after showing a lot of flashes and potential last year but there are questions about some aspects of his game and whether or not he can be an every down end. But he may not have to be.

The primary focus through Spring and Fall camp will once again be finding that pass rushing specialist to unleash from the end position and whoever that player or players turns out to be, they’ll find themselves in a rotation at that DE spot opposite of Rochell. Trumbetti will be in that primary rotation no matter what but many hope that some of the new blood in the Freshman class will make a strong push for major playing time. The lead candidates are early enrollees Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes. Kareem arrives designated as a DE while Hayes is technically considered a LB, however he’s going to get work at both positions. It will be interesting to see where Hayes lands permanently but even if he sticks as a LB he could still find himself lining up attached to the front line quite often. Julian Okwara, little brother of Romeo, will also be a candidate but many think he’d benefit from a redshirt year to put on some more size. Regardless it’s going to be open season at DE these next few months and anyone with the right size and speed is going to get a crack at it.

No matter who steps up to fill the existing voids in the Irish trenches, there are going to be a handful of new names among the starting ranks and some inexperience. That’s always a bit of a scary scenario that makes fans nervous but keep in mind that both championship contenders Clemson and Alabama had a large amount of turn-over themselves on their lines heading into 2015. Many anticipated Clemson’s O-Line being a major liability that would hold their offense back and the Tiger defense lost nearly all their starters but still managed to be just as good if not better than the top rated defense they had in 2014. There’s actually reason to believe that Notre Dame’s offensive line could be improved next season despite losing 3 veterans and perhaps this is the year VanGorder’s defense and his personnel finally turn the corner. With new blood comes new possibilities, some players just need the opportunity that a departing veteran provides to finally break out.