StrengthsBrian Kelly's assessment that the group contains "eight to ten guys that can play winning football" lends credence to the growing belief that "winning time" (to borrow a phrase from Magic Johnson) is soon to return to South Bend.
The interior has a solid base in guards Chris Stewart and Trevor Robinson, both of whom made my list of the squad's Top 10 players last season. The pair could earn post-season accolades if they continue to improve in 2010.
Untested but perceived depth exists at guard where accepted No. 6 OL Andrew Nuss can play both positions and promising redshirt-freshman Chris Watt has trained for an entire season and the bulk of the spring session.
The unit's most heated August battle promises to be the pivot, where fan-favorite Braxston Cave holds a slight edge over the team's most experienced player, 5th-year man Dan Wenger. I believe Cave's classmate, Mike Golic, is closer to the No. 2 role than do many.
Good news on the outside arrived early in the spring when Zack Martin surpassed assumed starter Matt Romine. Romine was lauded by teammates last August as the tackle with the best pass protection skills on the squad. Fast forward to April 2010, where new OL coach Ed Warinner Martin, of the O-Linemen "has the quickest feet and he's the guy best suited of the whole O-Line to play left tackle."
Martin's classmate Alex Bullard moved from guard to tackle in the spring and he'll likely backup the right side winner, either Robinson or Taylor Dever. Though Dever has been overlooked by fans, it should be noted that Kelly believes Dever has sometimes looked better at right tackle than has the talented Robinson (a natural guard). And that Dever is not only in a fight for the right tackle spot, but also a candidate at right guard if Robinson takes his spot outside.
Though not stated as such by the staff, look for the best five linemen to win the five starting spots (even if a bit of position tweaking on the right side is necessary), with three others rotating on a regular basis.
WeaknessesIt's likely that the former Irish head coach also believed his OL could play solid football, when in reality; the unit – the calling card of the program during its halcyon days of the Lou Holtz era – was battered weekly by perceived lesser opponents over each of the last four seasons.
Seven of the top 10 competitors have yet to start a college game (Romine, Dever, Nuss, Cave, Watt, Bullard and Martin)…The player with the most career playing time and games played has been supplanted in the starting lineup on multiple occasions, moved to guard and switched back to center (Wenger)…The group's top two players (Robinson and Stewart) both struggled vs. 2010 opponents in matchups last season: Robinson was beaten twice for sacks by Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan (then again, so was everyone else on the Irish line), and again by Kerrigan on a short-yardage running play while Stewart had his hands full with the USC interior, notably Jurrell Casey and Armond Armstead.
The drop-off from Stewart to Wenger was noticeable in nearly every substitution situation last season, though Wenger returns to his more natural center position this fall…Following a solid early-season effort, Nuss was overpowered on multiple occasions in limited playing time last season…Notre Dame's tackles were poor at best last November; was Romine that far behind Duncan in the pecking order on the left side? (there was no way Weis was removing Sam Young from the equation)…In his only extended action since the season-opener, Dever was beaten (he did recover) by an outside speed rush vs. Washington State; the resulting escape from the pocket by QB Dayne Crist ended with the quarterback's now infamous ACL injury.
Entering AugustIt's worth noting that of the 12 featured units, this position group could benefit the most from the regime change. But over the last four seasons, the Irish offensive line could be categorized by the following words or phrases: mediocre (2006); historically awful (2007); historically awful if 2007 never happened (2008); mediocre (2009).
Marked improvement in the W/L column is only possible if the OL unit greatly improves its level of play – a difficult task for a group that must absorb and adapt to a new system and become a cohesive unit over what amounts to less than two months of practice time.
I have confidence in two of the group's competitors – far less in another – and have yet to see more than seven minutes of game film from any of the rest (and don't have a trained OL eye to offer an educated opinion from practice, though I must say I liked Nuss from the outset last season).