Links Remain

Three constants of the Brian Kelly-era offensive line remain to help bridge the gap to a new era up front beginning in 2014.

The award's been in existence since just the turn of the century, but its safe to assume Zack Martin's ownership of Notre Dame's Guardian of the Year Award, presented annually to the team's top offensive lineman, will never be matched.

Martin earned the honor in a landslide as a true freshman in 2010. He duplicated the feat in 2011, then took it home again last year, his senior season in which head coach Brian Kelly said of his senior left tackle, "He's lapping the field. He's that good on a consistent basis. I think coach (Harry Hiestand) is grading him out in the 90s where guys are grading in the 60s and 70s.  He's just a consistent player for us at a high level, and has been that way all year."

Barring injury or a remarkable season by his classmate, roommate, and fellow left-sider Chris Watt, Martin will doubtless win it again. The agile 300-pounder's excellence coupled with Watt's power represent known quantities for the Irish front wall entering spring ball 2013.

Then it gets interesting.

Old and New

10 of Notre Dame's 14 offensive linemen for the 2013 season will be on campus for the spring session including early enrollee offensive tackle prospect, Steven Elmer. Senior-to-be Tate Nichols has accepted a medical scholarship due to recurring knee injury. He'll remain at the University, but no longer be part of the football team. Returning starters include Zack Martin, Chris Watt, and Christian Lombard.

Position Coach: Harry Hiestand -- Enters his second season as the team's offensive line coach and running game coordinator. Notre Dame averaged 4.9 yards per carry on a decade-high 506 rushing attempts while allowing just 18 sacks under Hiestand's guidance last fall.

Spring Combatants: 5th-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt; seniors (redshirt-juniors) Bruce Heggie and Christian Lombard; juniors (redshirt-sophomores) Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, and Nick Martin; sophomore Ronnie Stanley and sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Mark Harrell; early enrollee freshman Steven Elmer.

Incoming Talent: Four-star prospects Hunter Bivin, Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern, and John Montelus will hit campus in late June for the University's second summer session.

Senior Christian Lombard returns to the right side after earning a full season of starts as a junior last fall. Lombard was previously a respected backup but one that saw limited playing time in his only previous season of competition, 2011.

Though he's expected to remain at right tackle, Lombard could move inside to right guard, allowing for a competition outside between sophomore Ronnie Stanley -- a varsity player before elbow surgery last year -- and either Nick Martin or Matt Hegarty. Both are juniors, both are expected to battle for the open center position, and both were high school tackles converted to the pivot position.

Martin (Zack's younger brother) is the odds-on favorite to win the center job due mainly to previous playing time. He was the first offensive lineman off the bench last year at both guard and tackle though for an offensive front that suffered no serious injuries.

Hegarty is expected to make a full recovery from heart surgery in January and has been deemed ready to compete. A four-star tackle prospect, Hegarty has worked at center for the better part of his first two seasons with the program.

Also in the mix at center is converted high school tackle/tight end, Mark Harrell, of whom Kelly spoke highly following bowl preparations.

Right guard seems set with Conor Hanratty earning the first shot this spring. Hanratty has been a varsity practice player for two full seasons at guard and should have a leg up on any incoming freshman, especially since only one, Elmer, is involved in spring ball.

Hanratty's biggest competition at guard would come from Lombard should he slide inside, or from Martin should he lose the center battle with Hegarty.

Elmer and the Foursome

Still in the process of re-stocking up front, the Notre Dame program is nonetheless healthy enough to field a two-deep this spring without the aid of four true freshmen joining this fall.

But the quartet (detailed in the box above) joining is essential to the 2014 season and beyond, and at least one if not two of the five total newcomers could earn varsity, two-deep roles.

With a leg up is Steven Elmer, a January enrollee and the first verbal pledge (Sept. 2011) of the 24-player class. Elmer is slated for tackle duty this spring, a two-deep spot is open for the taking on either the left (Z. Martin) or right side (C. Lombard), pending the slotting of sophomore Ronnie Stanley).

Three of his four incoming classmates (sans McGlinchey, a likely tackle) will then likely look to fill interior roles, with both backup guard spots winnable against senior Bruce Heggie, a "program player" who has been invaluable as a reliable reserve during blowouts -- thus allowing the team's freshmen over the last two seasons to be withheld from action.

Heggie's fourth season in the program though will be in his favor when he takes on a more talented true freshman in August.

The Future: Near and Otherwise

For the fourth time during the four-season Kelly era, Notre Dame will not have a true three-deep offensive line available for practice.

"We were in the red line in terms of critical need," said Kelly of the 2013 recruiting cycle. "Next year it won't be quite in the red line of critical need. It'll move into still a need for us in our program is to continue to build on the O-line."

Kelly has since noted the team was unable to go live (tackle) as often as it wanted last season and during bowl preparations. Part of the issue is the availability of offensive linemen. With the medical retirement of senior Tate Nichols, the Irish are again one man short, and with 15 spring practices, a summer of workouts, an August camp, and approximately 900 Saturday snaps of attrition remaining.

With three offensive linemen (Z. Martin, Watt, Heggie) likely moving on following the 2013 season, expect the Irish to sign four more in the upcoming recruiting cycle.

Until then, don't expect a heavy dose of 11-on-11 live action for the team's returning starters this spring.

Projected Spring Depth Chart

Heggie will be asked to fill multiple roles until reinforcements arrive in June:

Left Tackle: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley
Left Guard: Chris Watt, Bruce Heggie
Center: Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty, Mark Harrell
Right Guard: Conor Hanratty, Bruce Heggie
Right Tackle: Christian Lombard, Steve Elmer

Note: To read the first four installments in our spring preview series, click the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs

Searching for Six: Wide Receivers

Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends

The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback Top Stories