Tea Leaves - Offensive Line

It's never too early to project starters and key backups for each major position group...well, maybe it is, but here's our first of seven inside looks, regardless.

Brian Kelly's second Irish squad is a mere seven practices through its spring session. You know what that means, right?

Time for rampant speculation!

Our first of seven such position overviews examines the team's most important unit.

Offensive Line

Four starters return and, barring injury or unforeseen events, should man the first unit throughout the spring, summer and fall. (LT Zack Martin, C Braxston Cave, RG Trevor Robinson, RT Taylor Dever).

The starting left guard spot will see two main competitors: 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss and junior (red shirted in 2009) Chris Watt. Most media and fans assumed Watt had ascended to the lead role but position coach Ed Warinner noted Wednesday that Nuss and the junior from Glen Ellyn, Ill., were running neck-and-neck.

Does either have a leg up?

"Not yet," offered Kelly following Friday morning's practice. "I think you're going to see them all play in some fashion. Right now it's Nuss and Watt, and then I think (Mike) Golic is learning the position because we want to cross-train him at center and guard. But I would say if I was to pick the two guys it's Nuss and Watt right now, and then Golic's making progress."

Golic is Cave's backup center while senior Lane Clelland (another former tackle) works as the team's fourth guard. Spring ball shows sophomores (red shirted last year) Tate Nichols (LT) and Christian Lombard (RT) manning the second unit's perimeter.

First Unit:

  • (LT) Junior Zack Martin (3 yrs eligibility remaining)
  • (LG) Junior Chris Watt (3 yrs) or 5th-year Senior Andrew Nuss
  • (C) Senior Braxston Cave (2 yrs)
  • (RG) Senior Trevor Robinson (1 yr)
  • (RT) 5th-year Senior Taylor Dever

Second Unit:

  • (LT) Sophomore Tate Nichols (4 yrs)
  • (LG) Watt or Senior Lane Clelland (2 yrs)
  • (C) Senior Mike Golic (2 yrs) – emergency Andrew Nuss
  • (RG) Andrew Nuss or Clelland
  • (RT) Sophomore Christian Lombard (4 yrs)

Early enrollee Brad Carrico provides OL depth and will be joined in the summer/August camp by guard prospect Connor Hanratty and tackle prospects Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, and Troy Niklas (his initial slotting according to the staff). The quintet would give the Irish a true three-deep set of scholarship practice personnel for fall 2011.

Main Man

He began last spring as an assumed backup for senior-to-be Matt Romine at left tackle. By the time the media contingent asked Brian Kelly about #70's presence with the first unit, Zack Martin had already staked his claim to a spring starting role – one he never relinquished as a redshirt-freshman, 13-game starter, and eventual Guardian of the Year award winner for the Irish.

What can Martin do for an encore?

"I think there were times where physically he got worn down," Kelly offered of Martin when pressed for a point of improvement for his best offensive lineman. "So (spring) has been more about physical development: his strength; his core; and then leadership.

"When you're a first-time starter, you're not saying much. You're worrying about your own (responsibility). But (now) he's shown great communication with the new left guard, whomever it is – whether it's Nuss, or Watt, or Golic – they're all communicating and it starts with Martin because he's the one with experience.

Martin plans to lead by example. As for the ability to play at a higher pace for longer, the junior tackle has a simple theory.

Quick Hits

A few predictions for spring, August camp, and beyond:

  1. Zack Martin was the runaway winner of the team's Guardian of the Year award last year. Look for a finally healthy Trevor Robinson to take home the award in 2011. The senior guard will be a strong candidate for the team's most improved player and second/third team All-America honors.

  2. Your 2011 starting left guard: Andrew Nuss post-spring; Chris Watt post-August camp.

  3. While Kelly and OL coach Ed Warinner would prefer nine to 10 regular contributors (there were nine last season with a tenth in the fold), the 2011 OL will feature eight: Nuss, Mike Golic, and Christian Lombard as backup G, C, and T, respectively, as Lane Clelland makes an occasional appearance (much like since-transferred Alex Bullard last year). Nuss' ability to play both guard and tackle – and now reportedly, center – negates the need for a fourth contributing offensive tackle as sophomore backup Tate Nichols grows into the position.

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