The battles in the trenches should have a big impact on the Notre Dame-Michigan game Saturday night in the Big House. These battles will also have NFL draft implications, especially when the Wolverines have the ball, as there will be three linemen on the field who project as first-round picks: Notre Dame NT Louis Nix III, Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt and Michigan LT Taylor Lewan. In addition, Notre Dame DE/OLBs Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams project as Day 3 picks.
What should concern Michigan fans the most is the Wolverines' ability to match up on the inside, where they are young and don’t have great size. Center Jack Miller, at 291 pounds, is giving up close to 70 pounds to the 357-pound Nix, who will line up directly over Miller's head in the Fighting Irish’s three-man fronts. At guard, 303-pound Graham Glasgow and 297-pound Kyle Kalis could see Nix if -- and when -- Notre Dame goes to four-man fronts. Nix is a massive interior run-stuffer who has the strength to control any one of these interior offensive linemen and disengage in time to make the play.
Al Borges, Michigan's offensive coordinator, said he thinks the Wolverines have someone to play the Nix role in practice this week. But that’s unlikely. The heaviest defensive tackle on Michigan’s depth chart is 315-pound sophomore Ondre Pipkins. The heaviest player on the Wolverines' roster is 338-pound freshman Chris Fox, who is listed as an offensive lineman. Michigan doesn’t have a seasoned nose tackle with the same kind of bulk as Nix -- few do -- to give its young interior offensive linemen a taste of what they’ll see Saturday night.
In addition, the 322-pound Tuitt primarily plays on the outside, but he can slide inside. His blend of power makes it tough to match up one-on-one when he lines up at defensive tackle in the Fighting Irish's four-man fronts.
With Notre Dame having the edge between the tackles, the onus is on Borges to help his interior offensive linemen. Borges will have Michigan attack the perimeter at times. It’s not that easy, though. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco did a nice job of making it tough to get outside last year with wide alignments at outside linebacker, especially in 3-4 fronts. Plus, Tuitt and 290-pound DE Sheldon Day can set the edge and make it tough to get outside.
Lewan did a nice job of firing off and generating initial surge last year. He wasn’t as effective sealing Tuitt when they matched up and Michigan ran outside.
In his news conference this week, Borges said he always goes into a game with multiple ways to block a defense. Isolations, designed quarterback keepers and read-options figure to be the most effective approaches to slowing Nix when Michigan runs inside. Isolations and designed quarterback keepers have lead blockers that will allow Miller and the frontside guard to stay on Nix. Read-option will be effective when Nix wraps around the back and QB Devin Gardner keeps the ball.
However, these blocking schemes would give Nix chances to show he can hold his ground when teams run at him and double-team him.
Outside of running away from Tuitt when he lines up over right tackle Michael Schofield, double-teams and angle blocks could keep Tuitt off balance. Tuitt was inconsistent fighting through them last year. Angle blocks favor quickness and sound angles over power. For example, 231-pound TE Devin Funchess stood up Tuitt on a play that had Lewan pull outside and Funchess block down.
Tuitt needs to make Borges pay when he tries to block him with a tight end and show he can fight through it if Miller tries to block back on him. The keys for Tuitt are seeing these blocks quicker and keeping his pads down.
The script will flip on downs with pass-heavy tendencies, and Borges giving his offensive linemen help will prove more difficult, particularly on the inside. Borges and Gardner will have to react to what Diaco throws at them. Look for Diaco to attack the A-gaps like he did at times against the Wolverines last year. All three Michigan interior linemen will be making their second career starts. Not only will the A-gap blitzes force the young linemen to pick them up and get into position, but they also will create more one-on-ones when Borges goes with five-man protections. This could force Borges to run more max protections that use a back to block in an effort to bolster the interior, but that would take away a passing option from Gardner.
Borges can also roll the mobile Gardner out of the pocket, but Notre Dame is a well-coached defense. The edge defenders do a nice job of working upfield, and they stay home on play-action bootlegs. Tuitt in particular is effective against these plays because he has good body control for his size and the long arms to get his hands up in passing lanes.
From a draft evaluation standpoint, the premier matchup pits Lewan against Tuitt as we focus on which of these big men can stay lower, generate more power and win with their hands. When the Wolverines dropped back to pass, Lewan came out on top the last time these two faced off. While Tuitt caught him lunging on an early snap, Lewan got sound placement and stayed in front of Tuitt for the most part. Tuitt is never going to be a speed rusher and he doesn’t have the burst to run around Lewan. I will be watching this interesting aspect: How much has Tuitt developed as a hand fighter?
Tuitt did record a sack last year, but he didn’t beat Lewan. He beat Schofield with speed to power. Expect him to get the better of that matchup again. Shembo and Williams are more athletic edge rushers and offer a different challenge for Lewan. It will be disappointing if he lets either beat him with straight speed off the edge. However, Lewan is not an elite athlete, so it’s important that he show he can stay in front when they redirect inside. The goal for Nix will be collapsing the pocket, making it tough for Gardner to step up and follow through.
Remember, Fighting Irish pressure played a big role in Michigan’s inability to protect the ball and crushed its chances of getting the win last year.