There's plenty of talent and experience returning from 2008, so there really should be no excuses at this point for this unit not to perform at a very high level.
Senior Sam Young returns as a three-year starter for the Irish. Young has more experience than any other Irish lineman, and probably more experience than almost any returning offensive linemen in the country. Young has been through the wars. He's entrenched at right tackle and he should have a fine final season for the Irish…..should. The good news is I've heard Young has been the guy pushing the others this off season. The bad news is he was doing that last year, and while they did play better, they still didn't play up to the level most expected. But give Young credit for at least trying to motivate his teammates. That's a credit to him, and it's much-needed at this point.
Junior Taylor Dever appears to be next in line behind Young. Dever saw his first action last year and will have two years of eligibility after Young departs next season. I've heard good things about Dever, and learning behind Young and slowing building strength and gaining experience should help him a great deal when it's his turn to play. I'd still like to see a lot of Taylor Dever in the fall. That would mean the starters did the job early and the reserves get some playing time. The Irish have to get some of these reserves some quality minutes because they'll be counted on very soon to carry the load.
Senior Chris Stewart seems to be the most likely candidate to start at right guard. I say this because I believe Notre Dame will at least look at sophomore Trevor Robinson at left tackle this spring. If Robinson isn't the starting left tackle, I fully expect him to push Stewart for his starting position at right guard. The best scenario for the Irish would be for someone else to man the left tackle spot so Verducci can have three quality guards to rotate and push each other all year. I'm not sure that will happen though.
Stewart has had stretches of being a dominant player. At times he's a beast. At other times he's not. He simply needs to keep that switch flipped on at all times. The good news is Stewart has another year of eligibility after this season. Verducci's coaching style might be exactly what Stewart needs.
Senior Dan Wenger also returns as a starter from 2008, and also started five games in 2007 while playing considerable minutes. Wenger should be completely healthy and should bring some toughness inside for the Irish. He's also played well at times, but he needs to much more consistent. The good news is Wenger also has another year of eligibility after this season.
Behind Wenger are two sophomores that we really don't know much about in Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr. Cave is probably more physically ready to contribute at this time. It will be interesting to see how much time he receives in the fall. If Verducci inserts him often that would be a good sign for the future. At this point we really don't know much about either Cave or Golic, so it's too early to really project what they can and can't do. This spring will be very important to both in their development.
Senior Eric Olsen returns for his final season for the Irish. Olsen has played considerable minutes, including some minutes as a true freshman. He's also been through the wars and should have a solid senior season. I also think Olsen will respond well to Verducci's coaching. He's always been a tough guy, and I think Verducci should bring even more attitude out of Olsen. The 6-foo-4, 300-pound senior isn't the most athletic lineman, but grit, toughness and experience should make for a solid senior season.
Behind Olsen right now is junior Andrew Nuss. Nuss has played limited minutes thus far, but has had two years to develop some strength and fine-tune technique. Now is the time for Nuss to cement his spot behind Olsen for next season. Like Cave, it will be interesting to see how time Nuss receives in the fall. If he plays early, that would also be a good sign. You might see Nuss flip-flop between right and left guard this fall depending on what happens at left tackle this spring and fall.
Left tackle is the biggest concern heading into spring. Senior Paul Duncan has played the position previously and has plenty of experience. He should be fully healthy after sitting out most of 2008 due to injury. Can Duncan be the answer for Verducci? Duncan, like Stewart, needs to keep the switch turned on at all times, and Verducci might be able to bring that out of him. Duncan, out of all the players competing for the position, has the most athletic ability, and it would a good situation for ND if he could win the job.
As mentioned previously, I believe sophomore Trevor Robinson will get a long look at left tackle this spring. Robinson was arguably Notre Dame's best lineman last season, and the sky is the limit for this very talented Nebraska native. They make them Nebraska boys tough……
Robinson certainly has the want-to, and is a pretty technically sound player for such a young player. Does he have the feet? That will be the question. But since he's from Nebraska, we know he has the smarts, good looks, right attitude, and toughness to be an All-American sometime in the near future. The sky is the limit for Robinson, as it is for all Nebraskans.
Two young players will also likely get a look at left tackle this fall. Junior Matt Romine will certainly get a look. Romine was said to be next in line for the position, but injuries has slowed his development thus far early in his career. Romine should have two years of eligibility after this season due to injuries. Romine could also fill in at guard at either the left or right spot this fall.
Lane Clelland is another young player who is said to have the ability to play tackle. Clelland will be going through his first spring practice, and it will be an important spring for him as some talented freshmen will be enrolling this fall. Clelland's future position is not yet known at this time and could wind up at either guard or tackle.
For players like Clelland, Cave, Nuss, Dever and Romine the time is now as ND does have some talented freshmen enrolling who will push the above names for spots. This will be a critical spring for all to develop and entrench their spots as next in line once these seniors depart.