If Charlie Weis and his offensive staff stressed cross-training offensive linemen, Brian Kelly has taken cross-training to a new level. During the 15 spring practices, Kelly seemed to play musical chairs with his offensive lineman, shifting people inside and out, moving guards to tackles, tackles to guards, and guards to center, for the most part keeping everybody guessing on what five lineman would be starting come fall.
Positional battles raged at everywhere except at Chris Stewart’s left guard spot. Many assumed fifth-year senior Dan Wenger would reclaim the starting center spot after losing it to Eric Olsen, but Braxston Cave has charged his way up the depth chart and looks to be the guy to beat at center. (Even guard Chris Watt got some snaps at center.) With both tackle positions vacant, Kelly experimented with shifting Trevor Robinson outside along with veteran Matt Romine and Taylor Dever, but by the end of spring practice rising sophomore Zach Martin, a redshirt last season, took control of the job to protect Dayne Crist’s blind side, while Dever looked in control for the right tackle position.
All of Kelly’s lineman start with a blank slate with offensive line coach Ed Warinner, who is well known for getting the most out of his offensive unit, especially in the running game. Warinner has been incredibly complimentary of the players he inherited, and there’s no reason to think that’s completely lip service. With a more player-friendly blocking system and quicker developing plays, there’s reason to be hopeful that replacing 60 percent of the line won’t be as painful as it was back in 2007.
OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
2010: Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger
2011: Taylor Dever, Andrew Nuss, Trevor Robinson, Matt Romine
2012: Braxston Cave, Lane Clelland, Mike Golic,
2013: Alex Bullard, Zack Martin, Chris Watt
2014: Christian Lombard, Tate Nichols
Senior Chris Stewart anchors the line at left guard where he’ll spend his days tackling his second semester of law school. Stewart is a perfect example of an offensive lineman growing for five years in a college program, and I expect Stewart to have a great year. This is also the fifth year for center Dan Wenger, who is battling Braxston Cave for the center spot, but might find himself in the mix at guard if Trevor Robinson slides outside. Wenger never seemed to seize a starting position, battling injuries and a lack of physicality during his first four seasons.
Trevor Robinson headlines the juniors on the roster, his versatility key for the Irish offense. Robinson was a highly touted recruit, showed toughness battling through ankle injuries last season and should be an above-average player for the Irish. Taylor Dever looks to have the first shot at replacing Sam Young at right tackle after backing Young up the past three years. Dever seemed to win a crowded race for the position, battling with classmates Matt Romine and Andrew Nuss, who has the capability to shift inside as well. Romine was a highly-touted recruit in his own right, but has also seen injuries and a lack of elite size slow down his ascent into the starting lineup.
Braxston Cave’s season-ending injury his freshman year against San Diego State likely saved him a year of eligibility, but Cave took his prodigious weight room numbers and applied them to the football field, where he’s likely taken the starting center job away from Dan Wenger, who many assumed would slide back into the middle for his fifth season. Cave’s a great leader that could be poised to play some significant football this season. Mike Golic Jr. also adds depth at center, though he needs to spend more time in the weight room for him to have any chance to see the field. Lane Clelland originally shifted to defensive end for spring drills, hoping to shore up a thin depth chart on the other side of the ball, but shifted back to offense by the middle of spring. Clelland’s return could have been because he didn’t take to the defensive side of the ball, but was likely because of the tragic death of Matt James, who many expected to find his way to the two-deep at tackle quickly.
None of the three freshman lineman last season played for the Irish, preserving a year of eligibility. Yet Zack Martin went from an afterthought to the front-runner for the starting left tackle position, ready to replace Paul Duncan on the blind side. Martin impressed coaches with his athleticism, footwork and competitive nature. Chris Watt also caught the staff’s attention this spring and spent some time working at center toward the end of practices, adding depth at center, and giving the Irish more options at interior positions. Alex Bullard, who the previous regime was very high on, also took reps at right tackle, getting a look both inside and outside during the spring.
The three player offensive line recruiting class took a tragic hit with the loss of top-liner Matt James during a Spring Break accident. That said, the Irish locked in a key interior recruit early with Christian Lombard committing to the Irish back in January of 2009. Lombard had a great offer list and was an Army All-American. After Kelly and his staff took over, they targeted Tate Nichols, a high school tight end that profiles as a offensive tackle in the Irish’s spread system. Nichols has great size and he’ll have time to grow in Paul Longo’s strength program while using his athleticism to eventually succeed in the spread offense.