The Irish have a long tradition of exceptional play on the offensive line and of producing exceptional offensive linemen.
Last season was no different.
Left guard Quenton Nelson, now a member of the Indianapolis Colts, and left tackle Mike McGlinchey, now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, led a powerful unit to a stellar season, a comeback Citrus Bowl victory and a Joe Moore Award, an honor given to the best line in collegiate football. Both former Notre Dame football leaders are now staples on their respective NFL teams.
And this year, though the two All-Americans are gone, the bar is still set high, especially for graduate student captains Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars. Although Bars and Mustipher may not be the legendary duo that Nelson and McGlinchey was, they’ve certainly helped keep the offensive line, and the Irish in general, on track so far in the hunt for a playoff spot this season.
There have been bumps along the road — the line has struggled at times this season, specifically against Ball State. But the unit has ultimately buckled down each game, even considering the extensive conversation surrounding the quarterback position for the Irish this season. Amidst all of this talk, the offensive line has quietly ensured that Notre Dame’s defense is on the field as little as possible and has paved the way for backs like junior Tony Jones Jr. and sophomore Jafar Armstrong, who have been asked to step up in senior Dexter Williams’ absence.
For Mustipher, the key to the offensive line’s success lies fundamentally in communication. The graduate student captain has emphasized the importance of seeing the field as a unit and communicating clearly and efficiently throughout the season.
“Communication-wise, and seeing through one set of eyes. Clear, concise communication on each and every snap, and I think, you know, [Vanderbilt] threw a lot of things at us … so it’s really just continuing that and not letting there be a drop off,” he said after the Irish beat the Commodores.
“It’s an emphasis really every week for us, seeing through one set of eyes. Because if we do that, and we stick to our basics, I think we give this offense a chance to make plays and the weapons that we have.”
Regardless of the year, a staple for Irish offensive lines has always been physicality. For Mustipher, that physicality is the basis, but not everything. The unit’s goals of keeping the defense off the field for as long as possible and giving the offense, as a whole, the best opportunity to get in the red zone and punch it in still play an important role.
“I think, right now, we’re physical, and that’s something we take pride in,” Mustipher said. “And it’s really just honing in on those fundamentals and techniques necessary in order to finish drives and not put [senior kicker Justin] Yoon out there, even though I love him. Our goal is to punch it in the end zone. … Don’t get behind the chains on first and second down, and convert third downs. Just simple, basic football to keep [the defense] off the field as much as possible.”
In line with Mustipher’s emphasis on “seeing through one set of eyes,” graduate student offensive lineman Alex Bars has expressed similar sentiments about the offensive line’s strengths, goals and mindset throughout the season so far. Through growth, the unit has the chance to maintain its pedigree.
“I think we’re very cohesive as an offense, complementing our defense,” Bars said. “ … I think we do a great job of making sure the defense stays off the field and putting up points at the same time. We just want to be the best that we can be, live up to our potential. Like I said, before the season started, we can be that group, so it’s just preparing the right way, and mastering your technique, and trying to progress each week, week in and week out.”
During last week’s victory against Wake Forest, the unit stepped up considerably as a whole, as production was up across the board, something the scoreboard showed after the game. For Bars, this step forward was a result of a new sense of urgency, which Irish head coach Brian Kelly has attempted to instill in the team throughout the year. The captain said it is the reason the Irish were able to really close the door last week.
“Like coach Kelly preached, we had that sense of urgency, so that when we had them on the ropes and we needed to have that finishing blow, we were able to do that, and then keep scoring and keep scoring, and then put them away,” Bars said.
And for all of this to be achieved, for the offensive line to live up to its potential, Bars and Mustipher thoroughly understand that the unit must practice what the coaches preach — preparation. At this point in the season, the unit knows where its level of preparation needs to be each week, and it must execute on that preparation. This awareness of the importance of preparation is “what makes this team great,” Mustipher said.
“They understand that preparation is necessary no matter what team that we’re going to play, and I think coach Kelly does a great job of letting us know that the opponent is faceless,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who we line up against — we just need to be ready to go. We need to be prepared to play the best guy who’s going to line up across from you, everyday — during practice, during lifts, during meetings — you need to be prepared that same way everyday. And I think that’s what helps make this team special.”