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Trench warfare will loom large in Texas-Notre Dame game

Can the ‘Horns hold up against strong Irish fronts on both sides of the season? The answer could determine the game’s outcome.

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NCAA Football: Texas at Notre Dame Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Like many football coaches, Charlie Strong wants the Texas Longhorns to excel on the offensive and defensive lines to assert physical dominance by running the football and stopping the run.

However, in the season opener against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this weekend, Strong’s third Texas team will have a tall task, as Notre Dame has an advantage on both sides of the football that could impact the game’s outcome tremendously.

Offensively, the ‘Horns will likely start senior quarterback Tyrone Swoopes to ensure that the full complement of running plays are available to new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert as he seeks to unleash Swoopes and the Smash Brothers, running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren.

Yet, even if the offensive line is improved and the offense will create more space for runners, beating Notre Dame at the point of attack won’t be easy.

The biggest concern for the Longhorns is probably Fighting Irish nose tackle Jarron Jones, a 6’5.5, 310-pounder who missed the 2015 season with an MCL injury after dominating at times in 2014 with 40 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.

When he’s healthy, he’s a load for opposing centers — and even running backs who try to help out their offensive linemen:

Whether Jones is facing off against freshman center Zach Shackelford or redshirt sophomore Jake McMillon, the converted defensive tackle who has been taking first-team reps since Shackelford’s ankle injury near the beginning of fall camp, he’s going to present a problem.

Since both starting Notre Dame defensive tackles are so tall — the other starter is 6’6.5 Jerry Tiller — the hope for Texas is that the offensive linemen can win the leverage battle against taller players and are healthy enough that their ankles don’t reduce their ability to anchor effectively.

But it’s not just the interior linemen for the Longhorns that will have a major challenge.

The tackles won’t have an easy time of it, either, because strongside defensive end Isaac Rochell has the size of a three-technique defensive tackle at 290 pounds and is coming off a season that saw him match the 2014 production of Jones in tackles for losses with 7.5. On the other side is 260-pound Andrew Trumbetti, so this is a big defensive line for Notre Dame.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Arizona State
Isaac Rochell (right) is a beast of a defensive end
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If Texas can get to the second level, the Notre Dame linebackers may take a step back this year after the departure of Joe Schmidt and all-world superstar Jaylon Smith. Those two players led the position in tackles and Smith was all over the field in South Bend to open last season.

There’s still plenty of talent there, but like the ‘Horns last season, it’s mostly unproven.

Defensively, a thin group of experienced defensive tackles for the ‘Horns will go against one of the best offensive lines in college football, a statement that may seem surprising on the surface since the Irish lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin to the NFL Draft and right guard Steve Elmer to politics.

But even with those losses, Pro Football Focus still ranked the unit as the best in college football heading into the season, in part because of the proficiency of Harry Hiestand, who may be one of the most underrated offensive line coaches in the country.

Hiestand likes to keep things simple for a group that excels at blocking for outside zone, but also does a lot of gap blocking on plays like power and counter trey to establish a physical presence. The gap plays may be the biggest concern for the ‘Horns, as Bedford noted that giving up vertical seams was a major issue for his defense last season against the run, especially against the Fighting Irish.

Here’s a look at a breakdown in gap integrity where both linebackers got blocked and undersized defensive tackle Desmond Jackson got pushed out of the play to leave a big seam for the Notre Dame running back:

On this play, CJ Prosise gained 13 yards before he was hit, then gained another five yards at the end of the run because nearly the entire Notre Dame offense followed the play and drove their teammate after his initial momentum was finally stopped as Texas defenders largely stood and watched:

What better statement is there for which team really knew how to play with an attitude and execute in the necessary ways to win the game? The image says it all.

Beyond discussion of the aspects that become tangible in moments like the run highlighted above, suffice it to say that the older players who will start along the defensive line for Texas — Bryce Cottrell, Naashon Hughes, Paul Boyette, and Poona Ford — will have to play at a high level to keep the linebackers free to make plays and ensure that the Notre Dame quarterbacks don’t have time to stand in the pocket and pick apart the secondary.

And the same goes for the offensive line.

If the Longhorns can’t win consistency in the trenches on at least one side of the ball, it could be a long night for Strong and his team.