Irish offensive line coach Ed Warinner has 11 years of experience coaching the position. When head coach Brian Kelly noted in August that he believed the depth chart contained 10 linemen that could play championship football, I'm confident it wasn't an off-the-cuff boast.
But much like the 2009 crew led by Frank Verducci, Warinner's front wall has regressed as the winds turned cold in South Bend. Previously non-descript opponents such as Jabari Tuani, Billy Yarborough, Shane Bothel and Shawn Jackson have laid waste to the highly-touted Irish quintet.
Can the team's most important unit save face and help the Irish earn just its second bowl trip over the last four football seasons?
First the good news...I thinkStill an untested freshman last March, Indianapolis, Bishop Chatard's Zack Martin took an early lead in the team's battle for the starting left tackle role. Through April, the summer and August, Martin's status never wavered.
Nine games later, the first-time contributor (redshirt-freshman) Martin is my choice as the team's top offensive lineman. Which brings us to the age-old dilemma: Is the offensive line's glass half-empty, or half-full?
Half-full: Martin has three more seasons to start at left tackle, the most difficult position to fill on an offensive line.
Half-empty: Why is a redshirt-freshman playing at a higher, more consistent level than a 5th-year senior and two juniors, one of whom has started since the middle of his freshman season?
"I think it starts with the tackles," Kelly said when asked to evaluate his offensive line last week. "We started two new tackles and anytime you start two new tackles with very little playing experience and (they) held up very well, you have to be pleased with that. I think I'd like some more production inside/out: the guard and center position has been good and bad at times. I think we've been more consistent outside-in..."
Martin is far from perfect, but it's difficult to argue he's not in the (brief) conversation for the team's lineman of the year award. His bookend at right tackle, Taylor Dever, started strong before injuring his hamstring in the blowout win at Boston College in Week Five. Saturday vs. Tulsa was his first start and second game back. Rust was evident, but bye week rest should help Dever in what will be his toughest matchup since the opener vs. Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, as Utah's strength is the depth of its defensive line.
Dever's limited athletically, but he's a scrapper and a fighter and one of the few seniors that's played his way into a role rather than simply maintained squatter's rights. If healthy, I wouldn't sit him for anyone on the roster.
With two starting positions locked in, senior Matt Romine is the obvious third tackle, the substitute at the ready for both. A current backup on the right side, Romine has three years of backup experience at left tackle. He's the player to offer spot duty when necessary, though I'm not sure a standard second quarter change (as we've seen over the last two weeks as Dever rounded into shape) should continue if Dever is deemed close to 100 percent.
No Accountability November?Perfect Practice Thursday and Focus Friday already exist for Brian Kelly's Irish. While we're on a moniker kick, how about something entirely new to the program after four-plus seasons of resting on its laurels?
Promising in space early, I believe the grind of a season, his first as scrimmage contributor much less a starter at the line's most mentally taxing position, has taken its toll on junior center Braxston Cave. He's not the problem, he should be the starter, and he's certainly the future, but Cave, like right guard Chris Stewart (and Martin, for that matter), should have been pulled from the lineup for a series, quarter, half, or the entire contest following the debacle at the goal line vs. Navy.
If you have "10 lineman capable of playing winning football" what possible excuse is there for trotting out the same duo/trio that couldn't move a 240-pound defensive end (who's 6'5", to boot – the adage "low man wins" shouldn't have been an issue!) and a 253-pound nose tackle when the team needed it most?
Sophomore Chris Watt purportedly pushed Stewart for his starting spot through the end of August camp. Watt's been a bit player to date while the affable Stewart has sometimes impressed, sometimes regressed and more than once lost the Saturday battle as a full-time guard. Is there nothing a player can do to be pulled from the field in game action on this team? Can you think of a more important time to demand better effort from your front line players than after that half-effort shown vs. Navy?
Speaking of squatter's rights: junior right guard Trevor Robinson wasn't part of the failed foot attempt in the New Meadowlands. He was, however, the 295-pound lineman shoved 7 yards back into QB Dayne Crist on the game's decisive 4th Down sack by 252-pound backup DE Shane Bothel.
Would Robinson's backup Alex Bullard or the aforementioned and supposedly on-the-cusp Watt lose focus at such a key time? Shouldn't the Irish staff have found out after Robinson's repeated half-hearted efforts over seven games were intermixed with some of the best one-on-one blocks you'll see on film? How can such variance in level of execution and effort continue?
No Irish lineman has hit more highs and lows as a run blocker or pass protector this season than Robinson, both at the line of scrimmage and in space. I have no idea how Robinson grades out other than it must vary wildly from play-to-play, series-to-series, and week-to-week.
If the interior (especially Robinson and Stewart) re-earn starting spots for Utah, so bet it. They were better than the competition in August practice sessions; there's a chance they're better in November. But if a first quarter vs. the Utes offers more of the same, shouldn't Watt, Bullard and Mike Golic, Jr. be given a chance to fight for their lunch money as well? If not, the staff's ‘Next Man In' mantra carries no weight.
There's a reason Notre Dame ranks among the nation's worst rushing programs over the last four years, and that onus doesn't rest on the team's three (respected and long-tenured) offensive line coaches in that span. I'm positive you can't cut collegiate athletes (thankfully). But I'm equally sure you can bench them.
Rees and potential reliefThere aren't many backup quarterbacks in Irish history that have earned a forthcoming start as clearly as has Tommy Rees after his relief effort vs. Tulsa.
Junior Dayne Crist's approval rating was at an all-time low with Irish fans when he was lost for the season due to his second debilitating knee injury in the last 365 days. Of course, Rees wasn't the backup of choice among the masses, but he broke program records and brought the Irish to within a chip-shot from an emotional comeback win nonetheless.
(Plus he's already been involved in the biggest, most memorable mistake and controversy of his career, so nerves shouldn't be a problem…)
Rees will receive the lion's share of work next week and I believe he'll perform well in his first starting assignment vs. the favored Utes on November 6.
I have no idea how to prepare a third-string, emergency freshman quarterback whom you hope won't hit the field. But Rees' backup, Nate Montana, needs a definitive game package that can work vs. the Utes; then the Cadets, and finally USC.
As for the emergent on-field presence of either Andrew Hendrix (the People's Choice) or fellow freshman Luke Massa, should injury befall both Rees and Montana, I have a different take: Assuming both are functional, don't you dare play the better prospect, whomever that may be, because his is the future fifth season of eligibility you're trying to preserve.
The 2010 Irish could use a bowl game for many reasons, but a trip to a lower-tier bowl is hardly the end goal for this staff and program. Wasting a season of eligibility in what would likely be a fruitless pursuit of that means to a convenient end isn't prudent, that is, assuming Kelly believes one or both could be his offense's trigger man in the future.
Next in our Forward Thinking series: A complete overview of the team's specialty units.