Well-equipped, deep, and undefined

Notre Dame's offensive line is long on talent, size, and, relatively speaking, experience. It's also short on definitive answers.

Five spots, seven likely candidates, perhaps none of which aligned Monday, the first of Notre Dame's 15 practice sessions, in the spot he'll man when the bullets go live August 31 against Rice.

The left tackle might be the right tackle, and vice versa. That is, of course, unless the right guard moves back to right tackle. The first unit center is unlikely to be that in the fall, but he could be a first unit guard. The first unit left guard today? He could be the left tackle. Or the right tackle. Or the right guard. The backup left guard? He started the last four games of 2013 -- three times at right guard.

To cap off the conundrum, the near-certain starting center wore shorts instead of football pants, watching his line mates work out the kinks.

Confused? Don't worry, March 2014 likely has nothing to do with the offensive line alignment you'll read about in August or see in September. There's even less a chance it will match what Irish head coach Brian Kelly puts out as his first five next November -- attrition nearly guarantees the latter.

"Relative to the battles, there's a lot of work to be done on the offensive line," said Kelly. "There's probably six or seven guys that are lumped together. We have to sort through that. It was alluded to in my press conference on Friday, what's the tackle situation going to look like? What's the two-deep situation looking like? This year, we really had to dig deep into the depth on the offensive line. We've got to sort that out. That's a big piece on the offense."

The senior member of the group -- 5th-year senior, to be accurate -- is Christian Lombard, a right guard starter of seven games before his injured back became too painful to play through last October. Lombard started the team's previous 13 contests at right tackle. Notre Dame was 12-1 in those halcyon days of 2012.

He's a guard now. Just ask him.

"I've never been asked that question," Lombard joked following his first practice since a herniated disc truncated his 2013 season last October 20. "In my mind, I've been playing guard now for the last two years, so I say I'm a guard. But it's really hard to tell, we don't have a set lineup at this point. A lot of younger guys in there, we're trying to find for positions. I'm confident (at tackle) as well."

Lombard is the dean of the OL with 20 career starts

Lombard's final 2013 slotting -- likely a starting spot -- could be determined by the work of others around him. While he can play guard or tackle, so too can sophomore Steve Elmer. Senior center Matt Hegarty can also play guard. Sophomore Mike McGlinchey (a right tackle Monday) could play the left side and junior Ronnie Stanley (left tackle Monday) started 13 games on the right in 2013.

The only certainties for 2014? Change, and likely that no one will match Zack Martin's outstanding contributions from last fall. That doesn't mean the unit can't be better overall, but it does need to solidify the tackle positions, left and right.

"I've never bought into the philosophy of the blind side, left tackle protecting," said Kelly of his search for a left tackle starter. "I think it's more of a point of discussion if you're a direct snap team, where you're five- or seven-step drop team. We're a rocker, three-step. We're 1.2 to 2.6 seconds and ball out. The left has never been a huge deal for me.

"It's been more of a comfort of stance. We're probably going to go with who's more comfortable in the position…So long story short, most experienced, most athletic, you'd say it's Ronnie Stanley, immediately. But most comfortable, and who's been on the left side? You go with the guys who have already been over there: Elmer. We'll probably go through the spring and look at both of those before we make that final decision."

Kelly added Lombard and McGlinchey's names as tackle candidates, the latter a shade-under-6'8" redshirt-freshman the head coach noted "throws the ball better than some of our quarterbacks" back in December.

In other words, he's an athlete.

Hegarty (center) earned his first start vs. the Cardinal

"He's a tough, physical kid, first of all. Toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness. Long, athletic. He's got all the tools," said Kelly of McGlinchey. "He just needs experience and time.

"It's a very competitive situation. He's got all the tools necessary for him to be a star for us. It's going to be time and place. When is that time and when does he get that opportunity I guess is what I'm saying."

Opportunity abounds over the next six months for McGlinchey and six former starters. Stanley (13 career starts), Elmer (3), Hegarty (2), Lombard (20), Hanratty (4), and Martin (11) each have a chance to earn starting roles in 2014. Each will play as members of the two-deep, with redshirt-freshman Hunter Bivin (at left tackle, Monday) the best bet among the remaining returning quartet (C/G Mark Harrell, G John Montelus, and T/G Colin McGovern) to serve as a two-deep backup and the No. 8 OL in the pecking order.

Then again, change is the only certainty for the all-important front wall in South Bend this spring, summer, and into the fall.

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