Elmer

Next generation on offensive line is ready to contribute

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As injuries chipped away at Notre Dame’s offensive line, the transition from present to future was jump-started last season. While ironman Zack Martin made it through the season unscathed, the best laid plans for Harry Hiestand‘s offensive line were thrown into the fire as back-ups at nearly ever position were put to good use.

True freshman Steve Elmer saw the field. Matt Hegarty, who a calendar year earlier was considering retirement after suffering a stroke, was playing center. Chris Watt and Christian Lombard, two anchors on the 2012 offensive line, both went down with injuries. Even first year starter Nick Martin ended his season with a knee injury.

Yet the unit, even with parts swapped out on the fly, stayed together. The run game churned out yards and the pass protection of Tommy Rees remained strong. But more importantly, the base for the 2014 line began to take place, with Hiestand getting an early evaluation tool that’s come in handy this spring.

With nearly two-thirds of spring practice in the books, the offensive line is beginning to take shape. And as we’ve seen in the past, the Irish staff has concentrated on getting the five best offensive linemen onto the field.

That’s meant making way for Mike McGlinchey at right tackle and shifting Ronnie Stanley into Zack Martin’s old position. It also means another season at guard for Elmer, after most had his career tabbed as tackle.

Earlier in the week both McGlinchey and Elmer were made available to the media. Both talked about the positions they find themselves in this season, thankful for the tutelage that came from departed stalwarts Martin and Watt.

“We’re all working to be like Zack and Watt were here,” Elmer told Lou Somogyi at BlueandGold.com. “We’re all just trying to work to make sure there is no drop-off with technique, communication. Not just on the left side, but everywhere.”

Elmer also talked about staying on the interior of the line. After Notre Dame essentially lined up five guard across the line of scrimmage in 2012, they’ll have Elmer, who at 6-5.5, 317 pounds is a prototype tackle, lined up at guard and bigger bodies at the two tackles as well.

“Whatever the coaches want me to do, wherever they think I can help the team the most, I’m willing to play there,” Elmer told the South Bend Tribune. “It’s still offensive line, whether it’s guard, tackle, left side, right side. That’s just kind of how I look at it. And the biggest thing is to have one position I’m looking at now and I can settle on honing in on that one.”

Elmer’s move inside was largely facilitated by the fact that Mike McGlinchey was ready to play. The gigantic right tackle adds more bulk to the Irish offensive line, with the athletic, 6-foot-7.5-inch tackle another physically dominant player.

While redshirting in 2013, McGlinchey took advantage of his chance to watch and learn from Zack Martin. The Philadelphia native hopes to have a career similar to the one Martin had, spending his first season in South Bend redshirting before starting for four straight years under Kelly.

Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com profiled McGlinchey, who also cited the example Martin and Watt provided as motivation to carry that excellence forward.

“I worked extremely hard in the off-season and all of last season to put myself in a position to compete for the starting job,” McGlinchey said. “I’d like to think Coach Kelly and Coach Hiestand are getting more and more trust in me as the days go on.

“I paid attention and I had a lot of good guys to learn the system. I learned how to act and learned how to be a Notre Dame offensive lineman.”

McGlinchey appreciated the opportunity to work behind and learn from Zack Martin — Notre Dame’s iron man left tackle — who started an amazing 52 straight games for the Irish from 2010-13.

“It was definitely a blessing coming in and having a guy like Zack in front of me,” McGlinchey said. “Coach Hiestand talks about it all the time. I don’t think there’s a greater example in the country than Zack.”

While Christian Lombard still has a final season of eligibility remaining, the Irish have seen the core of their line depart in the past two seasons. But with McGlinchey, Elmer and Stanley, the Irish have a new foundation, a trio that could play an awful lot of football together. Injured center Nick Martin has two seasons of eligibility remaining, and behind him a wave of young talent also waits to see the field.

After the depth chart all but emptied during the 2012 season, the coffers should be full come 2014, as another large group of freshmen join the roster. But after relying on a group of veterans to power the offensive front, the youth up front gives the Irish a strong foundation and a very bright future.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.