Pivotal Positions

Notre Dame doesn't have to replace much from its 12-1, national runner-up squad last fall. But with a three-year starter at center and a four-year starter at middle linebacker moving on, its easy to identify head coach Brian Kelly's chief positional concerns.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly used a baseball analogy to describe the strengths of his team last August: "I think we'll be strong up the middle."

His reference was a nod to what proved to be a destructive defensive line backed by Heisman runner-up Manti Te'o at middle linebacker, and the program's best offensive line since at least 2005, if not the early days of the Bob Davie era.

Te'o is gone. So too is a three-year anchor and centerpiece of the offense, Braxston Cave.

Considering the dearth of experience available at center, the latter is a much more pressing concern.

"Right now we've got great news on (Matt) Hegarty," said Kelly of his junior-to-be who on December 14 had surgery to repair two holes in his heart. "We think we're going to get clearance for him pretty soon. The procedure went extremely well. He's adapting to the medication, so we feel really confident there."

The 6'5" 296-pound former four-star tackle prospect has had precious few snaps in competitive contests. He sat out 2011 with the rest of his freshmen position mates, then was relegated to technical third-string center status last fall with since-departed 5th-year senior guard Mike Golic, Jr. deemed the backup at center if needed.

Golic never was, as Cave made it through 2012 unscathed. Hegarty was thus rarely included in scrimmage competition, playing center vs. Navy and Miami, and never in a game with the outcome in question.

Considering he starred at tackle at Aztec High School (Aztec, NM), its not an overstatement to note Hegarty has never snapped a football on a field when it mattered. Nor have either of his spring competitors, classmate Nick Martin, a tackle in high school and backup guard/tackle for the Irish, and former high school tackle and tight end Mark Harrell. Harrell was withheld from action last year; Martin was the first lineman off the bench for coach Harry Hiestand's group, though his best work was at tackle (vs. USC) and guard (Wake Forest).

"I think at the center position we have to look at a couple of different options," said Kelly. "Certainly (Matt) Hegarty has had some experience there. We're going to look at Nick Martin at that position. And I think Mark Harrell did a very nice job for us in the bowl season or excuse me, the (BCS) Championship game preparation. So those three guys, I think will get the first look at it in terms of the center position."

Regardless of who wins the job, a new era begins in the pivot, with the chosen starter having a minimum of three seasons of eligibility remaining (Martin and Hegarty; Harrell has four).

Notre Dame has received All-America level play from its center during three season over the last decade: 2002 (Jeff Faine), 2005 (John Sullivan), abd last fall, when Cave was named third-team All-Americal by CBS.

The Irish will likely have to settle for a solid performance from the position early, and ample improvement by the position's winner throughout 2013.

Three to make two?

No, I'm not writing about the antiquated early 80s NBA bonus free throw rule that gave shooters three attempts to hit two from the charity stripe. In this case, its the pairing and utilization of Notre Dame's inside linebackers for 2013.

The unenviable task of replacing the legendary Te'o will fall to his classmates and expected 5th-year returnees Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, both of whom have started at the WIll linebacker position over the last two seasons (Calabrese part of the last three), and junior Jarrett Grace, Te'o's backup last fall.

"I think we've got three guys that are capable of playing inside (linebacker) that have a lot of experience. I think you've got to throw (Carlo) Calabrese and (Dan) Fox and (Jarrett) Grace as the front runners to be involved in that inside linebacker position," said Kelly.

"As you know, (senior) Kendall Moore got some experience there as well, and we've got a host of young players that want to be included, and that will be front part. But those three guys lead right now."

Grace told Irisheyes.com he's worked almost exclusively at the Mike (Te'o's position), and had "very minimal" work at the Will. "With our coaching style I've picked up some of the (Will) 'backer spot," said Grace. "As of right now though I'm a lot more comfortable at Mike 'backer.

Grace later added any adjustment to Will wouldn't be major. Its assumed the same would go for Calabrese/Fox to the Mike.

"There's not really much difference," said Grace. "Be a physical linebacker, run downhill, hit people. There are some nuances in the way you align depending on the play-call, but nothing too major."

The only difference will be the level of play. Manti Te'o wasn't Manti Te'o the Heisman-level player in his first or second (or third) season of competition under the Golden Dome. Nor will Jarrett Grace be all he can be immediately next fall.

"I think the standard he set in terms of working hard and the way you play ,and the way you go about living your life, I think that's really been great," said Grace of Te'o. "I think it will carry on amongst all the players. For the guys we have and the guys we have coming in, we can't really try to fill that role all the way. The best we can do is just focus on yourself, how you play the game and in doing that if someone rises up to that type of level, they can look to Manti for help toward doing that.

"He's the standard," Grace continued. "The best thing you can do is focus on being a great linebacker. The coaches are going to prepare us the right way. We're going to strengthen the right way. We're always going to have the right game plan for the players to make the plays. That's all i'm going to focus on. Trying to be the best player I can be."

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