In the midst of winter conditioning and now less than a week away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most important questions to be answered over the spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #8 – BREAKING IN A NEW CENTER
A mere four players have executed center snaps in competitive game action during the 78-game Brian Kelly era:
-- Braxston Cave: 35 starts, a near three-season streak from 2010-2012 interrupted only because of a foot injury sustained in Game 9 of 2011.
-- Mike Golic, Jr.: Four starts to conclude 2011 in Cave’s stead.
-- Nick Martin: 26 starts at center among his 37 total starts (11 at guard) over the final three seasons of his Irish career.
-- Matt Hegarty: 13 starts including two to end 2013 and 11 consecutive to finish 2014 as Martin moved to the left guard spot, initially because of a torn tendon suffered in his right (snapping) hand.
The credentials of the quartet above include three seasons of Irish captaincy, 102 aggregate starts along the interior of the offensive front (including 24 at left guard), a trio of post-season team awards (plus two more off the field), and third-team All-America status for Cave in 2012.
(Technically a rookie starter in Kelly’s first season, Cave’s role as center was so set in stone by the time Notre Dame concluded its first spring practice of the Kelly era it was as if the new head coach already had a veteran in the middle on which he could rely.)
As such, the center spot has been in capable, trusted, and largely veteran hands since Cave took over in the spring of 2010. That is until this spring and next fall when either 2015 Scout Team Player of the Year Tristen Hoge, or redshirt-sophomore and former guard Sam Mustipher takes the reins as Notre Dame’s pivot man – and as part of the least experienced offensive front of the Kelly era, to boot.
YOUNG, TALENTED, AND INEXPERIENCED
An aggregate 27 previous starting assignments will dot the 2016 Irish offensive line quintet. It’s a youth-filled and/or inexperienced group expected to flank and backup either Mustipher or Hoge, one of whom will be the team’s least experienced center of the Kelly era.
More important than that technicality, two starters will have never appeared in a competitive contest, nor will any of the squad’s five second stringers.
2010: 36 combined starts among Cave, Zack Martin (the rookie turned out okay), Chris Stewart, Trevor Robinson, and Taylor Dever.
2011: 63 combined starts among the same quintet sans Stewart. Junior Chris Watt joined four returning starters as the most respected “rookie” starter of the Kelly era to date.
2012: 65 combined starts with the only newbie right tackle Christian Lombard, who ranked as an experienced backup.
2013: 77 combined starts with new blood in the form of Nick Martin – the previous squad’s “sixth man,” and heralded tackle Ronnie Stanley.
2014: 48 combined starts with four of the five starting linemen possessing starting experience. Backups Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty formed an enviable sixth and seventh-man punch.
2015: 68 combined starts with only redshirt-freshman Quenton Nelson as a true newcomer, though right tackle Mike McGlinchey had made just one prior start. Both Nelson and McGlinchey were considered upgrades over their 2014 predecessors (indirectly Hegarty and an injured Lombard).
2016? 27 combined starts among Mike McGlinchey (14 at right tackle; it is assumed he’s moving to the left), Quenton Nelson (11 at left guard where he’ll remain) and Alex Bars (2 at left guard in an injured Nelson’s stead).
Still recovering from in-season ankle surgery, in good health, Bars is expected to start at either right guard or right tackle.
One of two “rookie seniors” Colin McGovern (right guard if Bars plays tackle) or Hunter Bivin (right tackle if Bars plays guard) will round out the starting five, flanking either Hoge or Mustipher in the middle.
None of the unit’s projected second stringers (including Hoge/Mustipher; McGovern/Bivin) have played in the competitive portion of a college football game.
HOW DOES IT IMPACT THE QUARTERBACK(S)
Because that’s the Million Dollar question for nearly everything relating to the 2016 Irish, isn’t it?
Brian Kelly’s seventh-edition Irish can count on the men behind center, but as with every talented triggerman, the end result is as dependent upon those doing the grunt work to protect him. And the projected men in the middle rank among the unknown.
Hoge was recruited to be Notre Dame’s center of the future but a coaching staff source during Mustipher’s recruitment in the 2014 cycle noted that the former four-star guard was always slated for snapping duties as well. (Kelly intimated as much during a pre-season 2014 press gathering.)
Will the staff choose technical proficiency over athleticism? Will pure power be considered, especially alongside left-side maulers Nelson and McGlinchey.
Will the shotgun snap’s timeliness (not to mention accuracy) play a major role. Will the quarterback of choice matter? In other words, will Notre Dame’s starting center be entrusted with line calls in 2016? Or will that fall upon the winner of the DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire duel?
And relevant to the previous section, could the second-place finisher between Mustipher and Hoge find a home at guard a la Matt Hegarty circa 2013 and early ‘14?
It’s unlikely we’ll have such answers until mid-August, but spring progress – and perhaps an unofficial/unannounced leader at the position by session’s end – is imperative nonetheless.