Aug 21, 2013, 4:19 PM EDT
With offensive line coach Harry Hiestand entering his second season in South Bend, he’ll be welcoming in a new wave of talent, with five freshmen offensive linemen replenishing a depth chart that had gotten mighty thin. While most of that group won’t be ready to play any time soon, the starting five might be the best offensive line the Irish have had in well over a decade.
With two All-American caliber starters on the left side of the line and a third returning starter in Christian Lombard, the only thing that needs to be sorted out is who starts at the final remaining spot on the right side of the offensive line. After being forced to play as a true freshman, Ronnie Stanley looks like he has the inside track on that job, pushing Lombard inside to guard to let the 6-foot-6 sophomore man the tackle position.
That experiment might not last, with guys like Conor Hanratty and Steve Elmer having something to say in those proceedings. But with preparation for Temple already started, the best five look to be in line to start.
The Irish aren’t out of the woods yet from a depth chart perspective. While it won’t be as painful as it would’ve been last season, injuries to any of the starting five will take some significant reconfiguring.
Already this camp we’ve seen freshman Steve Elmer slide inside to left guard to fill-in for starter Chris Watt, who has missed a few practices. Hanratty’s training camp neck injury was also the impetus for kicking Lombard inside, allowing Stanley to get a running start at the tackle position.
For the first time in a long time, there seems to be some legitimate depth along the line. For too long, replacement level players have been a big step back for the Irish. That might still be the case at a few spots, but guys like Harrell and Hanratty are great gap-bridgers for the young freshman class, where Bivin, McGovern, McGlinchey and Montelus all join Elmer as having huge upsides.
LT — Zack Martin, Sr. #70
LG — Chris Watt, Sr. #66
C — Nick Martin, Jr. #72
RG — Christian Lombard, Sr. #74
RT — Ronnie Stanley, Soph. #78
OL — Hunter Bivin, Fr. #57
OL — Kevin Carr, Sr. #67
OL — Steve Elmer, Fr. #79
OL — Conor Hanratty, Jr. #65
OL — Mark Harrell, Soph. #75
OL — Matt Hegarty, Jr. #77
OL — Bruce Heggie, Sr. #51
OL — Scott Kingsley, Fr. #73
OL — Mike McGlinchey, Fr. #68
OL — Colin McGovern, Fr. #62
OL — John Montelus, Fr. #60
Expect the Irish offensive line to be more dominant this season than last, where they managed to average 200 yards of rushing and receiving during the regular season. Listening to the Irish coaching staff, they believe they have the top left tackle in college football in Zack Martin, which is saying something considering they scout elite prospects like Taylor Lewan each year. Chris Watt isn’t far behind, either.
While replacing a three-year starter in Braxston Cave at center isn’t an easy task, athletically Nick Martin is a better fit for what the Irish are trying to do up front and he’s seamlessly moved into the starting spot. If Stanley can get quickly up to speed, Lombard is already a better guard than Mike Golic was last season.
Last season, the Irish sometimes struggled in pass rush situations with Everett Golson, many times because the young quarterback wasn’t quite sure what he was seeing. Nobody is going to confuse Tommy Rees for a more elusive player than Golson, but the line will do a better job protecting Rees because everybody up front will be on the same page as the quarterback.
Even with a running back depth chart that’s uncertain, expect Notre Dame to take a step forward running the football this season as well. If everybody can stay healthy, there won’t be games where the ground attack lapses like last season.