SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If you look at the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line — the experience, the honors, the consensus conclusion that both guys might be first-round NFL draft picks next April — and compare it to the relative lack of experience and name recognition on the right side, it’s almost surprising that Notre Dame Stadium doesn’t tilt.
Check with the Fighting Irish themselves and it’s not really about individuals, but a quintessential quintet that is humming along as a single engine.
“Offensive line’s the only position in sports where you have five guys going as one, and we take a lot of pride in that,” senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey said this week as No. 9 Notre Dame (6-1) prepared for Saturday’s visit by No. 14 North Carolina State (6-1).
“We try to pitch five-for-five blocks every single play,” McGlinchey said. “If four out of five get their job done, we’re probably not going to have a positive play. We try to be the best individual players we can be, but we take a lot of pride in trying to be the the best offensive line unit in the country as well.”
A leading beneficiary of that pride has been Josh Adams, who has surged into the thick of Heisman Trophy chatter. Like McGlinchey, the junior running back is having none of that left-vs.-right comparison.
“You can pick a side. I’m comfortable running either way,” Adams said. “Every single guy has been balling, has been giving it their all and has been really dominating this year. . I’m not sure why people split them up.”
Maybe they do so because third-year starters McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson were already second-team Associated Press All-Americans last fall, or because they already graded as first-round NFL picks last spring. Each could’ve entered the draft. Each opted to stay after a disappointing 4-8 season.
“I’m honest with myself (when reviewing) film and I knew I had a lot of things left to improve on individually, and wanted to do that before I got into the league,” McGlinchey said, “and on top of that, the fact that last season didn’t go as everybody wanted it to go, and I love this place and couldn’t leave it the way it was.”
The 6-foot-8, 315-pound McGlinchey says he and the 6-5, 330-pound Nelson each had their minds made up by mid-season last year to remain in school.
Notre Dame is reaping the rewards. Focusing their offense on establishing a punishing ground attack, the Irish are sixth in the nation in rushing yardage at 317.9 per game. Adams is No. 2 in yards per carry (9.2), sixth in yards per game (138.1) and seventh in yards (967).
Perhaps more telling of the line’s effectiveness, the production has been there no matter who handles the ball. Running backs Tony Jones Jr., Deon McIntosh and Dexter Williams have combined for 594 yards and a 6.5 average. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush has netted 508 yards on 82 keepers for a 6.2 average.
On the line’s right side, senior Alex Bars is handling guard duties after transitioning from tackle a year ago, while sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey are sharing time at tackle. McGlinchey gave them all high praise.
“And obviously, the unsung hero of our offensive line has been (senior center) Sam Mustipher,” he added. “They talk about left side, right side all they want, but our offensive line doesn’t go without him. He controls everything for us.”
While the emphasis has been the ground game, the air attack has produced another 157 yards per contest, and over their last five outings, the Irish have allowed just five sacks after allowing five over the first two games.
“You really feel comfortable, no worries,” Wimbush said of the protection he’s receiving. “I worry more about myself putting the guys into the right position to make the correct blocks.”
A big test comes this weekend in the form of North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb, a 6-foot-4, 275-pound pass rushing specialist who already has 14 tackles for loss (second nationally) and 6.5 sacks (seventh). NC State allows only 91.3 rushing yards per game, sixth-best nationally.
The Irish say their line is contributing something else to this rebound season.
“They always bring their energy,” Adams said. “They lead as a unit. They kind of allow others to feed off of them the way they attack each and everything they do, whether it’s on the football field or just going to meetings. They kind of attack everything and they lead by example. And they make my job easy.”