While the numbers along the offensive line have been a problem for Brian Kelly and the Irish offense, the personnel at the top hasn’t been. Last season, the offensive line was one of the best in recent memory — averaging over 200 yards both running and throwing the ball during the regular season. With veterans across the board — seniors Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, and Mike Golic were joined by junior Christian Lombard — the Irish proved that experience in the program is a key piece towards developing a dominant attack up front.
However good the line play was, the depth chart didn’t provide enough flexibility. Notre Dame was handicapped during much of bowl prep, unable to go live with numbers and injuries making things too precarious. That lack of depth ultimately didn’t burn the Irish last season, but it did necessitate a full reload in the most recent recruiting class, with a five-man group being brought in to compete. While Steve Elmer is on campus and competing this weekend in the Blue-Gold game, it’s going to take some time before that group makes its mark on the field.
With starting jobs open after the departure of Cave and Golic, and a handful of candidates capable of filling the two open jobs, all eyes have been on Harry Hiestand and his troops as they look to find the best five-man combination available. The candidates are all young players that’ll be taking their first significant snaps for the Irish.
We’ll see on Saturday what the first team offensive line looks like. Right now, Nick Martin and Conor Hanratty are the two players likely to step into the starting lineup, with Martin playing center and Hanratty holding down the right guard job. But this spring has allowed Hiestand, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin the opportunity to see what they have for depth, and the rotation is coming into form.
This from BK’s after-practice media session today, when asked about linemen that were capable of playing “winning football,” a key evaluation principle for Kelly and his staff:
“You’re talking about Stanley, you’re talking about Hegarty, you’re talking about Hanratty, and right on the fringe of talking about Elmer there, too,” Kelly said. “He’s going to need some more work. But he’s made some really good progress. Plus your five.”
Interesting to note in those comments is what the inclusion of Ronnie Stanley does to the conversation. If the talented rising sophomore can work his way onto the field — with his spring really hampered while recovering from elbow surgery — it allows the Irish to potentially slide Lombard inside to guard. That’d give the Irish a really formidable interior, help protect Nick Martin with two returning starters surrounding him, and give Stanley a chance to force his way into the line-up.
“I think what you’re going to see is Ronnie and Christian and Conor, and we’re going to have to let that thing continue to develop for us,” Kelly explained.
At this stage, depth and competition are good. That said, if you’re looking for an indication of how this likely shakes out, consider Kelly’s usual reliance on veteran players. Nobody thought Mike Golic was going to end up winning the job at right guard last year, but he did after an impressive spring and summer. While he hasn’t contributed yet, Hanratty has had an extra year in the program than Stanley, giving him first shot at a position that might not truly be up for grabs.
Either way, while there are plenty of variables heading into the Blue-Gold game, it appears that the depth chart is starting to sort itself out.