Spring Questions: Offensive Line

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's front wall heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the fourth of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

During preparations for Purdue last September, Notre Dame co-captain and starting center Nick Martin tore ligaments in his right thumb. The end result was no games missed, but a realignment (following the contest) in the team's starting personnel and four position switches along the offensive front.

Martin couldn't snap, he moved to guard.

By season's end, Martin arguably played better at guard (vs. FSU, Northwestern, LSU in particular) than he had previously at center. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison as Martin battled knee and thumb injuries in 2014 and gained experience over 2013, but it's relevant to note because Notre Dame fans' early-season whipping boy Matt Hegarty also produced his best efforts in the season's second half, earning Top 10 player honors vs. LSU (plus honorable mention vs. FSU and Northwestern) after moving and adjusting from guard to center.

Is it thus set in stone, or even prudent, that Martin move back to center and Hegarty back to guard to presumably compete with redshirt-freshman Quenton Nelson on the left side?

In other words, if what appeared broken was "fixed" by the time Notre Dame ran through LSU, why break it?

Spring, summer, and fall camp cohesion is a coveted commodity for an offensive line. Will Notre Dame, head coach Brian Kelly, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand keep the band together, so to speak? Or instead choose to add a talented, inexperienced and unproven rookie addition in Nelson to the potential starting quintet?

Speaking of standout bowl performances...

Pop in a tape (I suppose it's digital) of Notre Dame's second half performance in a 31-28 victory over LSU and watch first-time starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey. For all his rookie faults displayed early, McGlinchey sure did impress late.

Now, pop in a tape of 2014 freshman Alex Bars in practice last fall.

And therein lies the rub. Unless you work inside the program's walls, you have no way of knowing how close Bars is to McGlinchey in the reasonable pecking order.

Said Kelly of Bars in December, "…One of the best I’ve seen in 25 years. He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about who’s job he’s gonna take. He’s that good of a player. If there’s one offensive player that I could point to, Alex Bars is clearly the guy that stands out on offense."

How does that compare to McGlinchey -- the object of Kelly's affection prior to last spring? Is Bars' current status merely part of annual, requisite December hyperbole? Or is he good enough to beat out McGlinchey, or even force an early-season job share on the right side?

If Bars can make up that ground, it's a good problem to have, and a great sign for future development up front. They don't need to decide on a starter until mid-August.

One of Notre Dame's top two prospects from a potentially outstanding 2014 recruiting haul, Nelson received the standard redshirt season as a true freshman last fall, but along the way was identified (both in the summer and in December) as a player on the rise.

Does that ascent include a potential starting role over a returning fifth-year senior in 2015?

(And while we're at it, how about an additional question: Who is officially returning for a fifth season in South Bend?)

For Nelson to start -- and with the assumption that staff favorite Steve Elmer is firmly entrenched as one guard -- the redshirt freshman would have to beat out either the aforementioned Martin or Hegarty at left guard. The former is not happening, the latter would be an upset and one not often seen at Notre Dame.

If you're a fan of history as a predictor of the future, consider Kelly's comments regarding McGlinchey and his season-long competition with fifth-year senior Christian Lombard last fall.

"Again, it’s a matter of supplanting a senior in there," said Kelly of McGlinchey vs. Lombard in early November. "The one thing with Christian is he may not be spectacular in anything but he’s pretty solid. He doesn’t give up the big sack. He’s in good position. He’s kinda steady. He’s a steady guy out there."

Regardless of who wins the starting role, Notre Dame's first guard off the bench should be the best the program has had since current NFL starter Chris Watt occupied that role in Kelly's initial season of 2010 (Watt's redshirt-freshman year).

4. WHO'S NO. 8? WHO'S NO. 9-10?
Ronnie Stanley (LT), Nick Martin (G/C), Matt Hegarty (C/G), Steve Elmer (G), Mike McGlinchey (RT), Alex Bars (T), Quenton Nelson (G). In some form, those are your starters and first subs at tackle, guard, and center.

Who's No. 8? Logic and past depth charts indicate junior tackle Hunter Bivin, but a look at the last six games of 2014 shows Bivin -- previously a participant in five of the first seven games of the campaign -- did not appear.

If in good health, Bivin, part of the varsity and on the game day depth chart since his true freshman season, is likely No. 8 in the line's pecking order.

Digging deeper, the final 2014 depth chart showed Colin McGovern as a No. 2 (right) guard. Kelly cited McGovern as one of the surprises of the 2014 spring session, though that was as a player going from deep on the scout team (injury related) to threatening join the varsity, not to emerge as a major 2014 cog.

December conversations with Kelly included the names John Montelus (guard) and Sam Mustipher (center). Mustipher is unlikely to be true backup center (that would be either Martin/Hegarty sliding over from guard), but this spring is crucial for the redshirt-freshman after losing much of his 2014 season to a foot injury suffered early in August camp last season.

Montelus has played the least among the 2013 quintet of freshmen linemen, appearing only in the blowout of Michigan (insert joke here) after sitting out and barely participating in practice in 2013.

Add redshirt-junior center/guard Mark Harrell and redshirt-freshman Jimmy Byrne (more a guard prospect than a tackle) and subtract the potential of early enrollee Jerry Tillery as an offensive tackle commodity (he's going to debut as a defensive lineman) and, at least for the immediate future, the alignment and progress of the second-string Irish offensive line is anything but clear.

True freshmen Tristen Hoge (center) and Trevor Ruhland (G) join the fray this summer giving the Irish a potential 15 competitors up front (plus perhaps Tillery) to begin August camp.

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