Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

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.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy.