Gone from the group is three-year starting center Braxston Cave. So too is his former 5th-year classmate Mike Golic, Jr., who finished his career with 17 consecutive starts at both center in Cave's stead (2011) and guard (13 games last fall).
Like last year's unit, one that returned Cave and left-side stalwarts Zack Martin and Chris Watt, the current crop boasts three returning starters among its quintet: 5th-years Martin and Watt, plus senior right tackle Christian Lombard.
The loss of the powerful Cave is doubtless the unit's biggest hit of the four-year Brian Kelly era, isn't it?
"If you look at last year you really had three (new) guys," said second-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. "Because even though Braxston had played, he didn't play in our terminology, in our plays and things we were doing. We really had three in (August) training camp that really hadn't done it, really hadn't played together. Braxston didn't have any spring practice, so he didn't do our fundamentals until August."
Cave missed most of November 2011 and all of the spring 2012 session in recovery from surgery for a broken foot. That missed time was assumed irrelevant since the veteran pivot had played so much football in his collegiate career. None of it, however, was in Hiestand's system.
These guys are more familiar now with each other and with what we're teaching," Hiestand said of the 2013 crew. "Those guys last year it was the first time for all that stuff.
New Man in the MiddleCave departed at his peak, a third-team All-America selection by the Associated Press, and one of the strongest players in program history.
In his stead steps 284-pound redshirt-sophomore Nick Martin, younger brother of Zack, veteran only of backup roles at tackle and guard.
Midway through spring ball, he's the odds-on choice to start at center next fall.
"The first five days he was okay," said Hiestand of Martin's spring progress. "He struggled a little bit with the snaps but (Practice No. 6) he was much better. Right before we broke for Easter he had shown improvement. We anticipate him to keep climbing."
Part of Martin's progress is his aforementioned playing time in 2012, his first as a game day competitor after a redshirt 2011 campaign. He wasn't at center last season, but that might prove valuable.
"It absolutely helps him, he has a good feel for what the tackle has to do. Having played all those positions, it helps him understand more of the big picture and what the whole line has to be doing," Hiestand offered. "When he makes a call or has a communication, or he lets them know its this look that he's seeing, he knows how important it is that they get that call, because he's been there (at tackle) when that call wasn't relayed."
What will also help Martin is added strength and weight, though according to Hiestand, that's far less important than most fans think, despite a center's matchup with massive modern nose guards on every snap.
"I think you can play center and not be massive. Its not as important as your quickness off the ball, your ability to deliver the ball, your understanding of leverage and using that to your advantage," said Hiestand. "Nick isn't as heavy (as the 303 pound Cave) but he's taller and longer, and actually has a bigger body. He doesn't have the strength Braxston had, but he's got a little bit more range and he's got longer arms. That helps him.
"He's a different make-up, a different style of guy. I don't think it'll be an issue. His technique is something he has to constantly work on to improve. It's critical for him, but it is for everyone. If Braxston didn't have technique, he was on the ground and his guy was in the backfield. It doesn't matter as much as constantly trying to get better at it. Its no more important for him than anyone else."
An ex NFL offensive line coach of the Chicago Bears, Hiestand added that Martin will likely play the season in the range of 290 to 300 pounds. Not that he needs to.
"In Chicago our center (Olin Kreutz) played at 275. He could do a little bit, too," said Hiestand of the six-time Pro Bowl selection.
In SupportAn out-of-left field (or more accurate perhaps: out of left guard) theory among Irish fans and media posited 5th-year senior Chris Watt could move from left guard to center, the purpose of the move giving the offensive line a veteran to work between a pair of rookie guards rather than have two first-timers side by side (C/RG) next fall.
That won't happen.
"I don't know why you'd want to do that," Hiestand said of the notion. "Chris and (left tackle) Zack (Martin) have a tremendous chemistry together, they really understand how to work. If we felt like Chris was our next best center and we'd be a better team with him at center, then we'd do it, but Nick and Matt (Hegarty) are making good progress."
Hegarty's presence on the field is as remarkable as his progress. Less than four months removed from surgery to repair two holes in his heart, and a previous period in which he suffered a mini-stroke and was thus unable to work out because of the severity of his condition, Hegarty is back battling for a starting spot. He's behind Martin now, but that's partly due to his time away from the weight room, particularly vexing because as a junior (redshirt-sophomore), Hegarty enters the season in which collegiate strength and conditioning usually takes hold.
"That's what you'd like to do, traditionally, historically, is get that amount of time to develop strength," Hiestand said of third-year linemen. "You can definitely see that helping those guys. Matt would be right there with them if he didn't have that (heart) issue. He's a little bit behind them but he's making ground up. He couldn't' do anything (from November forward last fall).
Hegarty does though have two seasons of center experience. Like Martin, he's a converted high school tackle. Unlike Martin, he's toiled for an entire spring (2012) and football season as the second-team center, earning varsity reps against one of the nation's best nose guards, Louis Nix.
"He learned how to stay in there and fight him, and that was the biggest thing," said Hiestand of the size and weight disparity between Hegarty (296) and Nix (326-347 pending the timing). "He learned how to keep his body in front of him. If you put too much pressure forward (Nix) slips you. It's finding out how, and there's no substitute for doing it."
Also learning on the fly is former 2011 high school tackle and tight end, Mark Harrell. Currently a No. 2 right guard, Harrell is cross-training at center.
"A lot like (classmate and left tackle) Ronnie Stanley, Mark's a young guy; those young guys need time out there," Hiestand said of the second-year pair. "He played center when we got started when Nick was missing time early (in spring) and did a decent job there. He's battling at guard, just need repetitions. He's making progress. Mark's a very determined guy, he had a good off-season, he's gotten stronger, we'll see where it goes. We have 10 days of spring left and we expect him to continue to improve
"He's snapping the ball every day. He's our third center right now so he has to get work and he does."
They all do. They all need it. But for a 10-player crew down at least one competitor (the latest out is senior guard Bruce Heggie) for every practice to date, Hiestand is pleased with their effort and cohesion.
"The adjustments we're making fundamentally are way less than we were doing at this time last year," he said. "They have a better understanding of it, and a better availability to do it, so we should be able to tie those pieces together a little bit better I think. I know, then at this point last year."