Offensive LinemenIt was a tale of two seasons for the group: the first eight games with Braxston Cave anchoring the middle and the final four without:
Players Returning: Following season-ending ankle surgery for his center Braxston Cave, Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted that the team would see the senior in the spring. That, along with logic, are strong indicators the line's anchor will return for a third season as starter in the middle.
- Left Tackle Zack Martin – Named Guardian of the Year as the best offensive lineman on the squad in each of the last two seasons, the senior Martin is eligible through the 2013 season after sitting out 2013 as a true freshman under former head coach Charlie Weis.
- Left Guard Chris Watt – A classmate of Martin's in both school and eligibility status, Watt made the first 13 starts of his career in 2011, excelling in the running game and arguably evolving into the unit's second-best performer overall.
- Center *Braxston Cave – The unit allowed just five sacks and rushed for more than 5.5 yards-per-carry in the eight games Cave started. The rushing total dropped nearly two full yards per pop and the group surrendered 12 sacks in its four contests without the senior pivot.
- Right Tackle Christian Lombard – Played far less than most analysts predicted prior to the season, and likely less than the staff anticipated. Lombard was the backup for the tackle pairing of Martin and Dever – neither missed a game and both played well. No true rotation formed on the outside of departed coach Ed Warinner's offensive line.
- Center Bruce Heggie – Played in two games as the third-string center, a thrill for the unheralded redshirt-freshman who was a defensive lineman in his first practices at the University in 2010.
Potentially Returning: Senior Mike Golic appears to be on the cusp of a 5th season – a veteran backup to Cave at center with the versatility to fill-in at guard as well.
Fellow senior Lane Clelland is expected to graduate but not return for a 5th-season on the field next fall. An offensive tackle that could also swing to guard, Clelland missed the 2011 season with a knee injury and was withheld from action as a true freshman in 2008 under former head coach, Charlie Weis.
Incoming: Massive redshirt-freshman Tate Nichols did not play last season due to a pair of injuries: a dislocated knee cap in August and shoulder surgery to conclude September. Like his classmate Lombard, Nichols did not play as a true freshman in 2010. Both appear to be right tackle prospect entering the spring (see switches/depth chart picks below).
Current freshmen Jordan Prestwood (T), Brad Carrico (G), Connor Hanratty (G), Nick Martin (G/T), and Matt Hegarty (T/G/C) each were withheld from action last season. Hanratty and Martin ascended to the two-deep depth chart early in the season but it was for designation only as neither would have played unless a rash of injuries ravaged the offensive line depth.
Prestwood was ineligible last season as freshman transfer from Florida State. He along with his quartet of line classmates are eligible through the 2015 season. Kelly noted in November that Prestwood would work at tackle and the rest of the freshmen appeared to be "interior guys" though most speculate that grouping doesn't necessarily include Martin.
Verbal pledges Ronnie Stanley, Taylor Decker, and Mark Harrell all appear to be early tackle prospects. Each is expected to be withheld from action in his true freshman season – a common practice in college football for the players at the position and one preferred by Kelly for his offensive linemen to gain strength and experience in the program before taking the field.
Potential Position Switches: There's little chance the freshmen duo of Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will play just one offensive line position over the next four seasons while sophomore Christian Lombard could swing to right guard thereby opening up a competition between his classmate Tate Nichols and one of the 2011 frosh for the right tackle role.
Hunch: The perceived post-spring depth chart will change at either one or two positions on the right side of the line by the time the Irish head to Dublin next August.
Projected Spring Depth ChartBelow is my best guess at the unit entering spring ball. Verbal pledges Mark Harrell, Taylor Decker, and Ronnie Stanley won't join the fray until next summer, thereby rounding out a three-deep for the OL for the first time since August training camp 2009 under Weis.
First Unit (LT, LG, C, RG, RT): Martin, Watt, Cave, Hanratty, Lombard
Second Unit: Prestwood, N. Martin, Golic, Hegarty, Nichols
Reserves: Heggie (C/G) Carrico (C/G)
Next in our position previews – the Irish return units.