Spring Solutions: Offensive line

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It may not feel like it, but spring isn’t too far away. For Notre Dame and Brian Kelly’s football team, spring practice is starting earlier than every, kicking off in early March.

The rationale for moving up the calendar isn’t 100 percent clear, but what is certain are the steps the Irish need to take to get back to the elite. As college football enters the playoff era, the 15 practices this spring will give the Irish their marching orders heading into summer workouts.

Needing to replace key starters on both sides of the ball, let’s take a look at the pre-spring practice depth chart, starting along the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Nick Martin, Sr. — C*
Matt Hegarty, Sr. — C*
Christian Lombard, GS — G/T
Conor Hanratty, Sr. — G*
Mark Harrell, Jr. — G*
Hunter Bivin, Soph. — G/C*
Colin McGovern, Soph. — G*
John Montelus, Soph. — G*
Ronnie Stalney, Jr. — T*
Steve Elmer, Soph. — G/T
Mike McGlinchey, Soph. — T*

*Fifth-year of eligibility available. 

Harry Hiestand won’t know what to do with himself this spring. After having miniature groups the past few springs with the depth chart in poor shape, competition will be at a premium this spring, with the two-deep stocked with people competing for playing time.

The departure of Zack Martin and Chris Watt leave two gigantic holes in the offensive line, but there are plenty of candidates to fill the jobs. Let’s walk through the spring objectives for each lineman on the depth chart.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Nick Martin: First and foremost is returning healthy after a knee injury ended Martin’s season early. Kelly gave good news on that front, calling Martin ahead of schedule during a press conference at the end of January. That doesn’t necessarily mean Martin will be taking live reps, and if he does that goes to show you how quickly he’s healed.

Then again, if he doesn’t, it’s a sign that the staff is comfortable letting him get through spring healthy. After a more than serviceable debut season in the starting lineup, the hope would be that Martin takes that leap forward in his second season at center.

Matt Hegarty: After battling some really serious health issues, Hegarty had to be one of the true surprises of the season, stepping into the lineup after Martin got hurt and holding his own against some really difficult competition. Hegarty played well against BYU, Stanford and Rutgers, facing off with some solid competition and showing himself fully recovered from a scary stroke he suffered.

Hegarty was a highly touted recruit. He’s got the size and athleticism the Irish staff targeted from the start. If he’s able to push Martin at center, there’s a chance he could play his way into a swing role at both guard and center, making himself a key reserve heading into the season.

Christian Lombard: Irish fans have all but forgotten about Lombard, the 2012 starting right tackle who shifted inside to play guard alongside Ronnie Stanley. But Lombard went down with a back injury early in the season, forcing Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. If healthy, Lombard is a key returning starter that could serve as an anchor on the interior.

The lone fifth-year player on the depth chart, Lombard has played a lot of football and has always been highly thought of by this staff. (Take a trip in the “Way Back Machine” and remember the Irish staff letting Matt Romine play out his eligibility elsewhere to allow Lombard to start at tackle.) Lombard’s a big body at guard who has the ability to play tackle as well.

Conor Hanratty: Hanratty was impressive last season, cutting into Elmer’s reps at guard before being forced into a more regular role when Chris Watt got injured. Now a senior, Hanratty’s urgency for a starting job will only be elevated. How things shake out on the interior of the offensive line should be interesting.

Expect Hanratty to stake a claim to a guard job, though what the staff does with Elmer remains to be seen. Depth like this is hardly a problem, but it certainly makes for a nice challenge. With redshirts coming off some other guys, the guard competition will be fierce.

Mark Harrell: After redshirting during 2012, Harrell didn’t see the field in 2013 either. From what we’ve heard from the coaching staff, Harrell’s got positional flexibility on the interior of the line, though he’ll be competing at a packed position with talented guys both younger and older than him. Getting on the map will be the first order of spring for Harrell.

Hunter Bivin: This will be our first look at Bivin, who was an emergency option down the stretch last season. A really athletic prospect who came into Notre Dame as a highly touted recruit, Bivin could play anywhere along the line, though might be Notre Dame’s next center after Martin and Hegarty move on.

Colin McGovern: McGovern wasn’t completely healthy last season, so spring will be a good opportunity to get his first true reps as someone competing for playing time. The Illinois native should earn some fans on the coaching staff with his mauler style, but he’ll have to work his way through a stocked depth chart as well.

John Montelus: Another redshirt getting his first look at true competition. Kelly spoke about Montelus’ recovery from shoulder surgery, proclaiming him healthy for spring. He’s a physically different player than most of the guys on the depth chart, with his 340 pounds a rather eye-popping number. That kind of heft might be useful in the trenches.

Ronnie Stanley: This is an important spring for Stanley, who had a sneaky, below-the-radar type season for the Irish in 2013. It’ll be clear to most that Stanley is a very good football player. Is he the Irish starting right tackle again? Does he shift to the left side? Does it really matter?

Stanley is a building block for this offensive line and will be counted on to be a key player next season. He should spend this spring asserting his dominance and preparing to be a front-line championship-level player for the Irish.

Steve Elmer: We’re past the point of wondering “if” Elmer plays next season. But “where” is a really interesting question. It’ll be important to give the sophomore a real opportunity to make a home at a position. You could make a decent argument that it could be at three or four different spots.

Elmer’s got the size and ability to be a left tackle. But if Mike McGlinchey is in the coaching staff’s plans at that position, then Elmer’s too good to keep off the field. In that case, he could slide inside and take over Chris Watt’s job. But that’s keeping some very good football players off the field as well. If Stanley flips to the left side, Elmer could play right tackle. And he spent a ton of last season playing right guard.

These type of dilemmas aren’t problems for coaching staffs. And as Alabama showed with Barrett Jones, it’s possible to slide a talented lineman all around. Elmer has that type of ability, so it’ll be a fun spring to watch what happens.

Mike McGlinchey: That Elmer isn’t a lock to step in at left tackle says a lot about McGlinchey. Expect to see and hear a lot about the monument-sized tackle, who will likely be given the first shot at the starting job. The season off likely helped McGlinchey grow into his 6-foot-8 frame, and he’ll have packed on plenty of weigh from his listed 290 pounds.

Brian Kelly has raved about McGlinchey’s athleticism, calling him athletic enough to play tight end during his signing day press conference and then talking about his arm strength and basketball ability as well. It’ll be fun to watch McGlinchey take his first meaningful snaps this spring.

Putting a redshirt freshman at left tackle is a big decision. But McGlinchey seems to fit the part well.

 

Work in weight & film rooms has Hayes ready to meet five-star potential

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Common thinking might give four- and five-star recruits too much credit. They do not all arrive ready to play at the collegiate level on day one. It takes time, conditioning, learning. Perhaps it was that awareness that kept Daelin Hayes from letting his five-star ranking on rivals.com change his expectations. He knew he would have much work ahead of him when he arrived at Notre Dame as the only five-star prospect in the class of 2016.

Now finishing his freshman year, the defensive end notices the effects of his work as he puts in more.

“I remember my first time watching film, I was like, woah,” Hayes said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “I look quicker, like more twitch than I did. I was definitely—it’s hard to put into words—but to actually be able to go back and look at it and see how it affected the game was huge. [Director of football performance Matt] Balis has worked wonders for us.”

Hayes’ improved quickness showed in his three “sacks” in the intrasquad scrimmage. Going against future NFL prospect Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, Hayes faced a stiff challenge throughout spring’s 15 practices, not that he shied away from that task.

“I don’t think it was ever a point where it was overwhelming,” Hayes said. “I’ve always been a competitor. … But you guys know Mike, he’s huge, obviously a first-round talent and whatnot. I’m just grateful to be able to go against somebody like that each and every day. He makes me better. …

“I love competing with the guy. You go and do that with a guy in practice every day, then the game scenario comes, it’s like second nature. You can do this in practice, you can definitely do this against anybody.”

McGlinchey does not seem to mind the matchup, either.

“Daelin is a man who is blessed with a lot of size and athletic ability,” McGlinchey said Friday. “That presents a lot of problems for people in the game of football. He’s so young, and he has so much still to work on, it’s pretty cool to see what he’s capable of and then what he is going to do down the road.”

When Hayes arrived at Notre Dame, still recovering from a high school shoulder injury, he weighed 250 pounds with 18 percent body fat. Now, he said, he still weighs 250—the Irish roster lists him at 255—but is down to 10 percent body fat. It is that kind of change which has created more twitch and makes McGlinchey envision Hayes after more time spent improving in the weight room and the film room.

“I’m not the same athlete that I was when I first came in, not by any means,” Hayes said. “… Buying into that offseason program is going to be huge for our team.”

Per the Blue-Gold Game’s statistics, Hayes ended the scrimmage with seven tackles. Whether skeptical of the recordkeeping within a practice or not, seven tackles in one abbreviated afternoon compares favorably to Hayes’ total of 11 in 12 games last season. Some of that uptick is playing time, some of it is scheme, some of it is realization of the potential highlighted by a five-star ranking. For now, though, Hayes insists he intends to simply learn from last year’s 4-8 disappointment and embrace the changes brought by new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

“With last year being the year that we had, there definitely was a yearning for change,” Hayes said. “When you have basically a reboot of the program, the guys are hungry and they don’t want to have to experience the same season as last year.

“Just continue to trust in that process. We’re hungry for something to cling on and buy into. When coach Elko, coach Balis, everybody came in as part of that reboot, I think we welcomed with open arms. [We’ll] continue to buy into the system and become more comfortable within the system.”

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

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Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?