From the moment Steve Elmer enrolled early at Notre Dame in the spring of 2013, there was never any doubt that he was on a fast track to the starting lineup.
The only question was where Irish head coach Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would decide to situate Elmer.
He played both left and right guard as a freshman in 2013, starting four of the last six games of the season at the latter spot in place of injured Christian Lombard.
By the spring and fall of 2014, the 6-foot-5 ½, 315-pounder from Midland, Mich., was prepped for a starting role at right tackle. Three games into the season, the plans were scrapped and Elmer found himself back at that right guard spot.
Now, at the halfway point of his collegiate career, Elmer has found a comfort zone, and the results should match the comfort level he has developed at the right guard spot.
“Being at right guard for upwards of a year and a half, that’s been huge,” Elmer said. “I’m very comfortable there: comfortable with the system, working on my technique and my consistency. That’s what I have to build on.”
Finding the best niche as an offensive lineman is the second step in the evolution of a dominant performer. The first step? Having the immense talent to match the size that Elmer possesses. The Scout.com top-100 prospect and U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection has never been short on ability.
But what Elmer may have lacked with the finesse and footwork as a pass blocker at right tackle, he more than makes up for it with pad level, power and sheer run-blocking prowess at right guard.
In fact, one could make a legitimate argument that while Nick Martin was battling a thumb injury, Lombard was fighting through back woes, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty were adapting as first-time starters, and first-round talent Ronnie Stanley was learning the nuances of left tackle over right, it was Elmer who was the most consistent run blocker on the 2014 offensive line.
And the progression continues.
“He’s one of the bright spots this spring on the offensive line and on the offense in general as far as the consistency of his play and the way he’s more comfortable with everything that’s going on around him,” said Irish associate head coach/wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock, who served as offensive coordinator in 2014.
“He’s made a tremendous jump.”
Elmer never has had far to go to approach elite status as an offensive lineman. But when you’re as big and powerful as he is, and you’re trying to adapt to a position that veers a bit outside of your skill set, the light at the end of the tunnel can shine a bit dim.
When the 2014 season began, Elmer struggled handling edge rushers from his right tackle position. Not that Elmer was without some finesse to his game, but playing in space when you have his size and tools can be a bit tricky.
Fortunately, what was best for Elmer also was best for the ’14 offensive line. Martin was struggling with the aforementioned thumb injury, which was making it difficult for him to snap the football and then get into a blocking mode. Brian Kelly also didn’t like the punch/push – or lack there of -- the Irish were getting from the interior of the offensive line.
Thus, after three games, Martin moved to left guard, Hegarty took over at center, and Lombard and Elmer flip-flopped positions on the right side.
The end result was a much better offensive line and much better fits. Still, being a full-time starter for the first time in his collegiate career left uncertainty in Elmer’s mind.
“It was pretty much the whole season,” smiled Elmer of his attempt to find a comfort zone. “There were definitely frustrating days.”
This spring, frustration is no longer part of the equation. Uncertainty has been replaced by confidence. If there are doubts along the offensive line, it’s at left offensive guard where two red-shirt freshmen – Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars – have yet to play a live down on the collegiate level. If there are doubts, it’s to the right of Elmer, where red-shirt sophomore Mike McGlinchey has just one career start under his belt.
Martin, Stanley and Elmer are the veterans of the unit.
“It took me a little while to figure it out, but I’ve made a couple of important steps this spring,” Elmer said. “It’s mostly clearing my mind and making sure I’m focused on things that will help me block this particular play.”
When Elmer has gotten in trouble with his interior line technique in the past, it’s often come in the pursuit of that tricky balance between exploding out of your stance, keeping the pad level down, and making solid contact with a defensive lineman versus lunging, allowing his upper-body momentum to get too far out in front of him, and then ultimately coming up with a proverbial swing-and-a-miss on the intended blocking target.
Not every shortcoming has been eliminated.
“That’s the million dollar question,” laughed Elmer of striking the perfect technical balance. “That’s what I’ve been working on the last two-and-a-half years.
“It’s really just doing it over and over, and knowing your situation, when you’ve got to come off the ball, and when you need to be a little more under control, which is part of my consistency I’ve been building on. I can’t be too far ahead of myself or I’m going to miss the linebacker.”
Elmer is unlike many offensive linemen who consider being called a guard and not a tackle to be an insult. After all, the real money is on the edge for an offensive lineman. The closer to the snap of the football, the bigger the insult for many.
“No, never,” said an insistent Elmer. “My thing since I got here was I don’t really know where I’m going to end up, but wherever the coaches think I’ll be best at, I’ll be happy there.”
Happiness for Elmer these days can be found at right guard.
“The biggest thing last season about moving from tackle was knowing the subtleties of the position from the right guard spot,” Elmer said “I felt like I was definitely better last year than the previous season, and I’m a lot better this spring than I was last fall.”
Elmer still believes the aspect of his game that will always need the most polishing is his pass protection. But at guard as opposed to tackle, those duties are lightened a bit with a center and tackle on either side of him. Also different is the caliber of athlete an interior offensive lineman usually blocks compared to a tackle.
The progress he’s made is noticeable.
“It’s so much better than it was, even in protection, awareness in protection, where his help is and where he doesn’t have help,” Denbrock said. “He now has the ability to control his body and be in a good football position all the time, even when he’s taking his footwork steps or when someone is surprising him.
“The bottom line is Steve is just a good football player and a good teammate.”
And a more comfortable one at that.