Chris Watt,  Zack Martin

Spring Solutions: Offensive line

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For an offensive line, nothing is tougher than breaking in a rookie quarterback. For the 2012 Irish, that meant finding an entirely new right side to work with Everett Golson, with Mike Golic playing guard and Christian Lombard taking over at right tackle.

The fact that the Irish o-line played well is a credit to the unit, especially considering they propped Golson up early. Even with an entirely new right side, the offensive line found a way to average 200 yards rushing and passing, answering any uncertainty that came Notre Dame’s way.

With Cave and Golic gone in 2013, there’s work to be done up front. Luckily for Notre Dame fans, left tackle Zack Martin is returning. He’ll be in line to win four straight lineman of the year competitions, a modern equivalent not all that easy to find. Next to him is left guard Chris Watt, who’ll help form a bullet-proof left side.

While Christian Lombard is returning, the Irish need to replace Braxston Cave and Mike Golic. Cave anchored the center position the past few seasons, a hard working power-player. Even with athletic deficiencies, he was one of the keys to the Irish roster. Meanwhile Golic also showed himself to a crucial member along the offensive front. Say what you want about the veteran many expected to ride the pines after spending much of his career on the bench, but Golic’s absence letf a significant hole in the line.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart up front and analyze where Notre Dame is heading into spring drills.

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Zack Martin, Sr.
Chris Watt, Sr.
Matt Hegarty, Jr.
Nick Martin, Soph.
Christian Lombard, Jr.

Ronnie Stanley, Soph.
Conor Hanratty, Jr.
Bruce Heggie, Sr.
Mark Harrell, Soph.
Steve Elmer, Fresh.

SPRING OBJECTIVES:

Zack Martin: Put simply, it’s Martin’s job to dominate. Sure, he’ll never be a first round monster, the type of guy that drags scouts to the front row. But after three straight years of starting, Martin is one of Notre Dame’s most important returning players, and he’ll anchor left tackle.

Christian Lombard: After a gradual initiation up front, Lombard should be expected to hold his own along the offensive line. That means taking a step forward this spring, owning the right side of the line while a new guard transitions in, and making sure that he’s helping solidify an interior that needs to replace two starters. Lombard should be one of the few anchors along the fairly inexperienced right side of the line.

Matt Hegarty: After worrying that his career might be over, Hegarty’s opportunity to seize the starting job is a key position battle this season. The former blue-chip lineman has recovered from what was believed to be a stroke and he’s ready to challenge for Braxston Cave’s former job.

Hegarty is a top shelf talent. But he’ll need to show he’s able to slide into the battle up front and keep the battle competitive.

Nick Martin: Zack’s younger brother deserves the first shot at the starting job. He’ll never be the biggest and strongest up front, but Martin will go head-to-head with anybody that’s ready to do so. He’s ready to stake his claim as a starting guard, but also has the ability to play at center. He may  not have been capable of playing last season, but Martin’s season in the incubator was more than helpful.

Chris Watt: One of the benefits of being a multi-year starter on the Irish line is that Watt gets to silence some of the unanswered offseason questions up font. With Watt, the Irish are in steady hands, with the offensive line hosting one of the finer guards the Irish have seen in recent years.

Making sure the Irish have a solid gathering this far is important. But if the Irish need someone to take charge up front, there’s a great chance that Watt will fill in a fairly significant hole on the line.

Ronnie Stanley: An elbow injury that ended up saving Stanley’s eligibility will likely determine if the Nevada native is ready to chase a starting job. After an impressive debut season, Stanley needs the opportunity to show off his good side. A mammoth protector, he’ll add some top shelf youth to the rotation if he’s able to contribute.

Bruce Heggie: He’s certainly come a long way from being one of the last low-rated recruits on the roster. For Heggie, finding a place along the line was one of the rare plans that worked out. While he has drawn a long drawn cat calls, Heggie spent his months preparing for his shot to win a job up front. Whether or not he does it, one of Kelly’s first ever RKGs has done a nice job.

Steve Elmer: There’s few players that fit the part of an offensive tackle more than Elmer. While the Irish don’t seem to be aiming at pushing Elmer into the forefront now, he’s looking very much like the type of guy that’s ready to contribute immediately.

Mark Harrell: After redshirting as a freshman, Harrell is ready to compete for an inside job on the line. He’s likely not physically ready, but Harrell should bring another option to the interior of the line.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.