Christian Lombard is a returning starter at right tackle, playing all thirteen games in a 12-1 season. But that hasn’t stopped him from embracing the reality that comes with improving personnel and elevated expectations. While the status quo wasn’t challenged during spring drills, one week into training camp, it’s obvious that Lombard understands that every job is up for grabs.
“The best five guys need to be out there,” Lombard told Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated. “If I am, I am. If I’m not, I’m not.”
Right now, those five guys are starting to take shape. The left side of the offensive line is a given. Zack Martin may be one of college football’s most under-appreciated players, a four-year starter at left tackle and the three-time offensive lineman of the year for Notre Dame. Chris Watt has the physicality and ability to be a starting guard on Sundays.
From there, it gets interesting. While Matt Hegarty is battling with Nick Martin at center, Brian Kelly’s confidence in the younger Martin is really telling. Yesterday during his session with the local media, Kelly blanked when asked about two new starters, a brain freeze that came courtesy of his comfort level with Martin at center.
“I even look at Nick Martin, he doesn’t seem like a first-year starter,” Kelly said. “Just the way he handles himself, it just seems like he’s been in there for a couple years. It’s very impressive.”
From there, it comes down to two jobs, the right guard and right tackle position. And with Conor Hanratty out for much of the last week at guard, the coaching staff has gotten an extended look at Ronnie Stanley playing right tackle, necessitating Lombard to kick inside to guard. It’s the type of training camp tweak that sometimes turns into career changers — consider what happened to Dan Wenger that allowed Braxston Cave to step in at center a few years ago.
Of course, the fact that the Irish have the option to move a thirteen game starter from tackle to guard and fill that position with a guy that’s already seen the field (or in Hanratty’s case, play as a third year guy in the system) says something about the depth being built. It also speaks to the versatility of Lombard and the athleticism of Stanley, who looks like a guy that might have some positional flexibility as well.
This is the final season where the Irish should have to mix and match along the line. While there will be pains associated to losing Martin and Watt as the anchors of the left side, two blue-chip recruiting classes should infuse new blood that hold multiple promising players. Until then, we’ll have to watch as the final pieces of the Weis era — Martin and Watt — anchor a unit that’s poised for a big season.