Elmer settles in, at least for the spring

Right guard, right tackle, left guard, and, maybe some day, left tackle. It doesn't matter to sophomore Steve Elmer, a versatile offensive lineman capable of playing most positions -- but happy nonetheless to settle at one.

Apparently Steve Elmer is smart.

There are far worse monikers to have as a football player, and it's one that doubtless stuck to Elmer because the observation came from graduated program legend and mentor, Zack Martin, who dubbed the rookie as such during his freshman season of 2013

"Everyone thinks I'm really, really smart," Elmer laughed when asked 'So how smart are you?' "I did alright in a couple of first semester freshmen classes and all of a sudden…It's really cool being at a University that takes (academics) so seriously."

His head coach takes them seriously, too, though when Brian Kelly referenced the former early enrollee's intellect a year ago this month, his focus was between the lines.

"He plays 11-on-11 pretty well," Kelly said of Elmer last April. "Generally, the guys who are big, physical, young kids, they look really good but they don't play the game as well. He plays 11-on-11 pretty well. He's got good instincts. He understands front-side/back-side combinations."

He had to. Last fall, Elmer took Kelly's credo of "Next Man In" to a new level.

He started at right guard in place of injured senior Christian Lombard and later at left guard in place of injured 5th-year mauler Chris Watt. His technical position listing was right tackle, where he occasionally spelled sophomore Ronnie Stanley. And had the aforementioned Martin been lost for a play or longer, Elmer likely would have been the man to step into the the left tackle role as well.

It was a lot to handle as a true freshman, though the taxing nature of the movement was mitigated by the fact that he had attained his goal -- he was on the field.

"It was really helpful for long-term development," said Elmer of his tackle-guard-tackle-guard machinations last fall. "It was a really valuable learning experience."

Perhaps not as valuable as the last 60-plus days in which he's remained stationed at one position, left guard, previously occupied by three-year starter Chris Watt.

"It's nice to be able to focus on position," Elmer admitted. "Because I experienced it the other way where I'd move after a week or two to the tackle spot, then I'd go back to guard, It's just nice to settle down and focus.

"I didn't really have any specific expectations of where I was going to play, I was open to what they were going to decide," he added of spring 2014. "They kept me at guard and I respect their decision that that's what they think I should do. It's nice to have a certain position you can focus on, pour all your effort into that.

"Whatever the coaches want me to do, wherever I can help the team the most, I'm willing to play," he added. "Offensive line. Guard/tackle. Right side/left side. It's the same to me. (But) the one position is the biggest thing."

Elmer found an ideal example in two-time captain Zack Martin

Even that's not set in stone, not if a third guard -- in this case senior Conor Hanratty -- proves better at right guard than does Elmer's classmate Mike McGlinchey at right tackle.

"That's kind of the issue more than, 'Who's the right guard or right tackle?'" said Kelly of settling on a starting five next fall. "I'm not a big believer in the left tackle-right tackle theory as much as getting the five best guys on the field. To a finer point, is it McGlinchey or is it Hanratty?"

Or will it be fifth-year senior Christian Lombard, out for the spring with a broken wrist after missing the second half of 2013 due to back surgery?

Notre Dame has three capable tackles (Stanley, McGlinchey, Elmer and Lombard, a 13-game right tackle starter in 2012). It has five capable guard (Elmer, Hanratty, Lombard, and centers Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty).

Only Elmer and Lombard appear on both lists. Today, tomorrow, and for the rest of the spring, Elmer will remain at left guard…unless a tackle falls to injury.

While he greatly prefers to learn one position as a collegiate sophomore (who wouldn't?) Elmer understands an offensive line functions as a unit. He also understands the left side of the line is nowhere near as impressive to those outside the program as the Martin/Watt combination of 2011, 2012, and 2013.

"Big shoes to fill, but that's not just on the left side," Elmer noted. "We've got great players across the board on the offensive line. We're all working to be like Zack and Watt. They were such great players -- are great players -- we're all working as hard as we can to make sure there's no drop-off. Technique, communication -- it's not just the left side, but all of us."

Left or right? Tackle or guard? The only certainty for 2014 is that Elmer will be among them.

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