Holding the line, searching for depth

In Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer, the Irish boast three offensive linemen with a combined 67 starting assignments. The rest of the 10 offensive linemen in camp this spring have one start – by Mike McGlinchey in the Music City Bowl – and little-to-no playing experience.

It doesn’t matter how big, strong, agile or durable one might think an offensive line is. All it takes is one misstep or a fall on the back of a lineman’s legs to create a catastrophe.

There are hand and wrist injuries of varying degrees from the non-stop hand-to-hand combat that takes place up front. Shoulders have to absorb the incessant push of defensive linemen. A sprained ankle for a 320-pounder – all things being equal -- is a bigger deal than it is for a 220-pounder.

The next thing you know, the cohesion that takes painstaking hours to create can come crashing down.

In 2014, Notre Dame’s offensive line made changes based upon the desire to find a better mix, not because of injury, at least until the end of the season. In 2013, injuries on the interior significantly impacted the outcome of games. In 2012, it was status quo.

One never quite knows what mixed bag will be thrown at an offensive front. The triggermen are the quarterbacks and skill-position athletes; their effectiveness is tied to what happens from tackle to tackle.

“We’re a big group up front,” acknowledged Brian Kelly Wednesday following the 10th of 15 allotted practices this spring. “You’re not just going to let us line up and block you. We’ll knock you off the ball.”

Three of the projected starting five offer mid-range if not overwhelming experience among offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s group.

• Left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound senior with two years of eligibility remaining, decided to return in ’15, which is a huge “save” for the Irish. Stanley has 26 career starts.

• Center Nick Martin, a 6-foot-4 ½, 301-pound fifth-year senior, is next in seniority with 24 starts. He’s back at a more comfortable center position after switching to guard in September of 2014 to protect a damaged thumb.

• The third most experienced returning offensive lineman is 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pound junior Steve Elmer, whose struggle at right tackle last year evolved into a success story at right guard. Elmer may have been Notre Dame’s most consistent run blocker this side of Stanley.

At 6-foot-7 ½, 315 pounds, Mike McGlinchey is a rare cat at right tackle, possessing the athleticism of a former tight end while towering over virtually every player he lines up against. His first career start came against LSU in the Music City Bowl when Christian Lombard finally succumbed to a chronic back issue. By most accounts, McGlinchey stood up well to the test.

“For Mike, it’s really all about body control, taking that large frame and controlling his movement,” Kelly said. “If it’s right in front of him, he’s going to knock ‘em out. It’s the ability to handle movement and redirecting.

“When you’re that long, it’s really handling those quick, sudden movements. We’re going to get a lot of that. That’s what Mike needs to continue to work on. It’s just that movement element, controlling his body.”

The fifth starter – at left guard – will either be 6-foot-4 ½, 325-pound Quenton Nelson or 6-foot-6, 316-pound Alex Bars, both red-shirt freshmen and both blessed with a ton of ability. Nelson is the odds-on favorite to win the job after serving as a backup to Stanley last year while preserving a year of eligibility. Had Stanley gone down with an injury for an extended period of time, Nelson likely would have moved into the starting lineup.

“Quenton is bigger, thicker, more of a brawler type,” Hiestand said. “Alex is a little more technique conscious. They both have tremendous will to be good and tremendous work ethic to get these fundamentals down. They have different body types, but they’re very similar.”

The loser of the left guard battle immediately becomes the top backup at guard and possibly at tackle, which is where the loss of fifth-year senior Matt Hegarty comes into play. Hegarty, who started 13 games at Notre Dame, including 11 at center last season, left Notre Dame prior to the start of spring drills.

When the coaching staff informed Hegarty that he’d have to fight for a starting job with the two talented youngsters at left guard – or something along those lines, according to Kelly – Hegarty, with Notre Dame undergraduate degree in hand, decided to take his final year of eligibility and apply it elsewhere.

“I gave him the opportunity to be the starting left guard,” Kelly said. “He chose another path. That’s all I can really say about it.”

That decision was as much a blow to Notre Dame’s offensive line depth as it was a detriment to the starting unit with Nelson – a five-star recruit coming out of high school – appearing ready to step into a full-time role.

Without Hegarty, the Irish either lost a starter or a top backup with notable playing experience.

In a year when injuries don’t hit, it’s not that big of a deal. But you just don’t know when two or three offensive linemen are going to go down, forcing inexperience (re: a lack of cohesion) into the starting front.

Notre Dame’s offensive line numbers are modest this spring, which is fairly typical. There are 13 scholarship offensive linemen, a couple bodies short of a full three units across the board. That’s not uncommon in the spring, but only one offensive lineman – freshman guard Trevor Ruhland – will be added to the equation this summer.

Early-entry freshman center Tristen Hoge is part of the spring 13. Jerry Tillery, a highly-touted offensive tackle, has become an even more highly-touted defensive tackle as an early-entry freshman this spring.

From where will the depth come? Likely Bars, and juniors John Montelus and Colin McGovern. Next on the list is junior Hunter Bivin, who has played both guard and tackle with the latter position his current spot. Sophomore Jimmy Byrne trails the pack at that left guard spot inhabited by Nelson and Bars. Senior Mark Harrell, who played center his first three years, is now backing up McGlinchey at right tackle.

When asked about depth, Kelly focused on two players, in addition to the backup left guard.

“We feel really good with the two young guys that are battling it out at left guard,” Kelly said. “The guy we want to continue to grow and develop is Colin McGovern. He’s got the size and athleticism that allows him to play guard and tackle. He’s got that ability. Here’s a guy that’s been in the program for a couple years that we really want to shine for us.

“John Montelus – with the reps that he’s taken – (has) shown that he can be a contributor. I know talking to Harry, he feels so much more confident that he can put him in the game and he can help us because he’s so physically strong.”

Montelus arrived in the fall of 2013 in less than ideal shape. Now at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, physical conditioning is, according to Kelly, no longer an issue.

“It’s been all the other things – protections and things like that – that have held him back,” Kelly said. “I’m not worried about the conditioning element. It’s more consistency, especially going against Coach VanGorder’s defense.

“They’re not lining up in one defense. It’s three-down, four-down, pressures, movement, all those things that tax you. (Montelus) has done a pretty good job this spring. Time and the work he’s gotten have really helped him a lot.”

Perhaps the development of McGovern and Montelus will allow Hiestand to get some reps for Bars at tackle just in case. If not, it’s Bivin, who had some health issues and played in just five games in ’14.

The loss of Hegarty gave the Irish one less experienced body up front, which has left a talented starting front with a degree of uncertainty in the second and third rows.

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