Best of the Best: Irish Offensive Line

The fourth edition in our week-long series ranking the best position groups of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

#4 – Offensive Line

The 2015 squad’s best position group has not previously held that status in any of the first five seasons of the Kelly regime, but they’ve generally been solid, at least since the stretch run of 2010.

The Elite: Zack Martin and Chris Watt – Martin ranks on a different plane among the elite, but Watt need not be downgraded as a result.

Both were top tier offensive linemen as seniors and fifth-year players (2012-13) while Martin ranked as such for each of his four seasons as a starter. (As an FWAA voter, I pegged Martin as a third-team All-American in 2011; first in 2012 and first in 2013.)

Watt is the program’s best guard of the 21st century, that status challenged only by the 2005 efforts of future New England Patriots draft pick Dan Stephenson.

Standouts/Difference Makers: Ronnie Stanley, Braxston Cave – A three-year starter at center, Cave emerged as a fifth-year senior to earn third-team All-America honors from the Associated Press, that despite a rough start while still recovering from foot surgery…Stanley is on the cusp of national honors entering 2015 and has started 26 consecutive games at tackle – 13 on the right side in 2013 and 13 on the left last fall.

Quality Starters: Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard – Martin fought through injury last season but should solidify his spot in this category with his best among three seasons as a starter this fall…Elmer came into his own late last season (disregard his freshman year struggles in your review of his play, it wasn’t fair to ask him to start at that point) and appears to be the team’s best run-blocker heading into his third season…

Lombard started for 13 games for the 12-1, 2012 Irish then fought through back injuries in both 2013 (at guard) and 2014 (at guard and tackle). He was far better in 2012, pre-injury, than most fans recall as he struggled to stay upright as a senior and fifth-year player thereafter.

Aided the Cause: Matt Hegarty, Chris Stewart, Taylor Dever, Trevor Robinson, Mike Golic, Jr., and Conor Hanratty – Hanratty was the odd man out among six starting candidates over his final two seasons. He filled in with aplomb as a run-blocker when called upon…Golic took a lot of heat in 2012 but had his moments pulling through the hole and improved greatly over his September efforts.

Solid but unspectacular, Dever was underrated overall, especially pre-injury, while Robinson never lived up to his recruiting hype but nonetheless started 37 of the last 40 games he played…Stewart was solid as a fifth-year player under Kelly in 2010 while Hegarty chose to forgo that opportunity in 2015 – he concludes his Irish career with 13 starts at two positions and will play elsewhere this fall.

Couldn’t/Or Has Yet to Carve A Niche: Matt Romine, Andrew Nuss, Tate Nichols, Bruce Heggie, Mark Harrell, Jimmy Byrne – Harrell and Byrne aren’t done (Harrell a senior, Byrne a redshirt-freshman) but the latter appears a full step behind his fellow varsity lineman at present…Harrell’s versatility aids practice situations but he’s unlikely to be the first or second guard or tackle off the bench in the fall…

Romine turned down a fifth-year opportunity to back up Zack Martin, transferring instead to Tulsa while Nichols’ career was truncated by injury…Heggie was a late-cycle recruiting addition to aid both sides of scrimmage on the practice field…Nuss was a career reserve with positional versatility for Charlie Weis (2009) and Kelly’s first two teams thereafter.

On Deck for 2015: Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson – The sky’s the limit: Exhibit A and Exhibit B.  

Finding a Foothold this Fall? Alex Bars – Should be the first tackle and first guard off the bench this season and could fill a similar “sixth-man” role to that of Chris Watt’s for the 2010 Irish (likewise in Watt’s redshirt-freshman season).

On the Horizon: Sam Mustipher, John Montelus, Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin – Bivin ended spring ball No. 2 at left tackle but was singled out by Kelly as a player that must improve…Mustipher, Montelus, and McGovern all appeared to do so this spring. Expect each member of the latter trio to be a No. 2 unit competitor when the team concludes August camp.

Why They’re No. 4: Initially I thought ranking the offensive line season-by-season would be difficult, but in retrospect, they weren’t as consistent or accomplished as I had assumed before beginning this series.

1. 2012 – By a healthy margin…

2. 2013 – Surrendered just eight sacks – EIGHT! – despite the lack of a running game and presence of an immobile Tommy Rees under center. The former is, of course, a negative on the line as well, but the staff’s usage of the team’s quartet of running backs and Kelly’s odd reliance on Rees’ arm deserve the lion’s share of blame.

3. 2011 – Paved the way for 25 rushing scores and kept defenses off an inexperienced Rees (17 sacks allowed).

4. 2014 – The occasional solid outing notwithstanding, the O-Line didn’t find its groove until the Music City Bowl victory over LSU. That outstanding effort in the season’s final contest pushes last year’s group from No. 5 to No. 4 overall. The line surrendered 28 sacks last fall, the most at the program since the train wreck of 2007.

5. 2010 – Not-yet-ready for prime time, but they improved in November as the Irish offense – and the head coach – evolved.

Upon further review, you could argue the offensive line as a position group as low as No. 6 on our list, but it’s likewise true the unit has been building toward 2015 and at present, appears to be the heart and soul of Kelly’s sixth-edition Irish.

Note: The fifth-ranked position group of the Kelly era will be published Thursday.