Future Front

Notre Dame's first and second unit offensive line is set for next week's Pinstripe Bowl matchup vs. Rutgers. You need only your second thumb to count the combatants...

Notre Dame redshirt-freshman offensive lineman Mark Harrell has yet to appear in a college football game. Chances are, that's going to change next Saturday at Yankee Stadium.

A high school tight end and tackle, Harrell moved to the offensive line's interior upon arrival in South Bend in 2012, learning the center position and working at guard, the latter was his home for most of 2013.

On December 28, Harrell isn't the Next Man In, along the Irish offensive front. He's the only man.

"I think the first and second unit are as one," said head coach Brian Kelly when asked to name the team's backups up front. "Pretty much."

Kelly took a moment to consider the unit's options, scanned his depth chart -- one populated with four freshmen that will not play this season including two unable -- and offered, "In terms of -- we're so thin there. I think at center right now, we would kick over (guard Conor) Hanratty at center and Harrell would go in at guard. Um…that's about it."

Harrell is the only non-freshman available scholarship player, though senior Bruce Heggie has played the last two games as a punt protector for Kyle Brindza. Heggie has reportedly battled a shoulder injury making consistent game contact an issue.

"I don't want to play (offensive tackle Mike) McGlinchey," Kelly said of his technical backup tackle that's been with the varsity throughout the season. "Big Red's going to maybe have to play, (walk-on Kevin) Carr. We're a little thin there right now. We've got one guy we can probably plug in there right now. We can probably…yeah, that's about it. We've got one guy."

It's Harrell. If any starter, including either tackle, turns an ankle, has his helmet pop off, or worse, the Charlotte Catholic product will make his collegiate debut, 26 games into his tenure.

Relying heavily on the game day versatility of true freshman starting guard Steven Elmer, the game day depth chart for Saturday's contest vs. the Scarlet Knights is thus as follows:

Left Tackle: Zack Martin, Steven Elmer, (walk-on) Kevin Carr
Left Guard: Conor Hanratty, Mark Harrell, Carr
Center: Matt Hegarty, Hanratty, Harrell
Right Guard: Steven Elmer, Harrell, Carr
Right Tackle: Ronnie Stanley, Elmer, Carr

Three interior starters, Christian Lombard (RG), Nick Martin (Center) and Chris Watt (LG) are out due to injury. Combine that trio with four true freshmen that will have their eligibility preserved (the aforementioned McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern, and John Montelus), and two losses from the junior class (guard Brad Carrico/medical casualty and tackle Jordan Prestwood/transfer), and Harry Hiestand's unit is in desperate need of season's end.

15 Deep for '14?

Lost from the names above are the elder Martin and Watt -- the former a four-year starter, the latter a three-year starter next to him. Also likely moving on will be Heggie (if he returns, it would be in a scout team role.)

Reinforcements are on the way with a current four linemen crop expected to sign on the dotted line in early February and report for action next summer. That quartet, Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne, Sam Mustipher, and Quenton Nelson, will help determine the futures of the team's current freshmen foursome, notably John Montelus and Hunter Bivin.

"John Montelus is doing a lot of work but we kept him out of live contact," said Kelly of the massive interior lineman's initial season, one lost due largely to off-season shoulder surgery. "I want him 100 percent in the spring."

Asked if Montelus was headed for center or guard duties, Kelly offered, "I don't know. We're going to take look at him. He's got the ability to do both. That center position requires a real good understanding of fronts, you have to be a really good communicator. You really don't know until you put them out there, about how offensive linemen handle that center position and they get a natural feel for it."

Bivin's slotting is to be determined as well.

"Hunter is doing a nice job for us," said Kelly. "I think it's going to play itself out with this next run of guys that we have coming in. That's going to let those guys fall into slots. McGlinchey can play tight end. He's that athletic. He *throws the ball better than half of our quarterbacks. He's that kind of athlete.

"When all the freshmen come in, I think we can figure out where all those slots settle in."

McGlinchey and McGovern have likely benefitted the most from December's extra practices.

"They're getting first-team reps today, because I'm not keeping Zack Martin out there. McGlinchey is running with the first group," said Kelly. "McGovern's done a nice job. I was pleased with him today in our live scrimmage. He's coming along, definitely getting stronger. He was really limited, physically with the knee so he's coming alone nicely."

McGovern was not activated for contact this fall until late September, the result of November 2012 knee surgery.

Should prospective fifth-year senior Christian Lombard return next season as expected, and assuming Heggie does not, Notre Dame will begin August camp with the following offensive line roster:

5th-year: Lombard (Heggie pending scholarship availablity)

Seniors: Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty, each of which is eligible through 2015.

Juniors: Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell. Harrell is eligible through 2016 while Stanley likely will be granted a medical redshirt for the same.

Sophomores: Steven Elmer, Mike McGlinchey, John Montelus, Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern -- the latter quartet are eligible through 2017; Elmer 2016.

Incoming Freshmen: Jimmy Byrne, Alex Bars, Sam Mustipher and Quenton Nelson.

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