On the Spot: The Irish interior O-Line

Our weekly look at the Notre Dame position group that faces the most difficult matchup against Saturday's foe.

The 2012 Notre Dame football team reached 12-0 and a No. 1 ranking due largely to three crucial developments over the course of a three-month regular season:

-- The defense was heroic
-- Game Day coaching was outstanding
-- And the offensive line executed when the chips were down, late in contests.

That was the norm…and then there was Week Two, a 20-17 Notre Dame victory over Purdue in which the Boilermakers, on that singular Saturday, were arguably superior to the Irish in each of the three crucial categories above.

And inarguably up front. Though Notre Dame's 2012 offensive line proved later to be a team strength, it was not that afternoon, dominated by a Purdue front four that produced a combined seven sacks and pressures with eight tackles for lost yardage, while wreaking havoc throughout.

Fast forward to August 30, 2014 and an Irish offensive line without Zack Martin, without Chris Watt, and with a recovering center that will doubtless be more game ready in October and November than he is today -- nine months removed from knee surgery.

Add to that a right guard that hasn't played since October and a left guard that only began playing last November, and concern -- regarding the unit's cohesion if not combined talent -- is natural.

Oh yeah, and add to that Christian Covington, Rice's 6'3" 300-pound future NFL product along the defensive interior.

"He's a great player. He's a penetrator with power but he's very elusive too," said Irish senior center Nick Martin, a player who'll tangle often with Covington Saturday afternoon. "He's smooth, he's good. But we practice every day against guys like Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones, so we see that type of talent."

Covington enters Saturday's contest with 24 tackles for loss in 25 career starts. Included in that mix were two tackles for loss against Texas A&M and a sack of 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in last year's season opener.

"He's got a motor. He's a tough player, really explosive. It's going to be a test," said 5th-year senior guard Christian Lombard. "I look forward to blocking him because he's a great player."

The aforementioned squeaker against Purdue was dominated by a Boilermakers interior tandem of Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston that took advantage of a recovering senior center (Braxston Cave had been out since the previous November due to foot surgery) and a new starting guard (Mike Golic, Jr.).

There's no Gaston-level talent to augment Covington's efforts, though nose tackle Ross Winship is solid, but the challenge is similar. That is, Lombard, Martin, and Hegarty as an interior trio will likely be a point of strength during 2014 -- can they be at the outset?

"Once you get out there, the game is different from practice to the actual playing field," said Lombard of the challenge a line faces. "Playing with a guy next to you, communication is really big and though we practice that a lot in training camp and in spring ball, it's just a little bit different.

"It shouldn't take that long though and we should be fine."

The team's newly-minted captain Martin understands the unit is a season-long work in progress as well.

"It's five guys that have to be on the same page every snap, and if one person's not, then the whole play is in jeopardy. It's not easy," Martin admitted.

"Obviously you strive for that perfection, but mistakes are going to happen, things are going to happen in a game. Adversity comes all the time. You just have to put yourself in the best position possible."

Head coach Brian Kelly offered on Media Day that the offensive line would be a team strength. It will have to be Saturday against one of the most productive defenders it will face this season.

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