Apr 2, 2014, 8:28 PM EDT
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.