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Finding Five: Shuffling offensive line pieces still possible

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Heading into spring with Notre Dame needing to replace Zack Martin and Chris Watt, the offensive line’s evolution was always a story to watch. As we close out spring practice, it appears that the pieces are coming together.

Mike McGlinchey has moved into the forefront for the right tackle job. Ronnie Stanley has moved across the line into Zack Martin’s sizeable shoes.

While Nick Martin and Christian Lombard are both currently injured (Martin is recovering from late season knee surgery, Lombard suffered a wrist injury during a non-contact drill this spring), both seem locked into starting jobs at center and right guard respectively.

That leaves Steve Elmer at left guard to fill out the starting five, moving into Chris Watt’s spot even though he’s built more like an offensive tackle. And while Elmer has been open and enthusiastic about playing wherever the staff wants him, his placement there seems to be an effort to get the five best linemen onto the field.

It’s a move similar to the one made last year, where Lombard shifted inside to guard to allow Stanley to get on the field. While injuries made that transition essentially moot, it appears that the emergence of quality depth in the form of Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty has made determining the top five more difficult than in years past.

RELATED: Watch the Blue-Gold game online via NBC Sports Live Extra

Brian Kelly talked about the internal dilemma still being considered by Harry Hiestand, Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, no stranger to offensive linemen.

“We’ve got to decide, the battle will be McGlinchey or Elmer. Does Elmer stay at left guard?” Kelly explained. “If he stays at left guard, is McGlinchey at right tackle? Does Elmer go out to right tackle and McGlinchey becomes your swing guy? Then that left guard position is open. That’s where we’re trying to figure out right now. If that’s open, then Hegarty and Hanratty can compete, and we’ll see if there’s a freshman that’s ready like Elmer was.”

To think that someone is going to come onto campus and immediately see the field like last season is a bit of a stretch. After all, Elmer played more because the depth chart was perilously thin and he had a jump start in spring practice. That said, if Kelly’s referring to eligibility, one player that’s caught his eye is redshirt freshman Colin McGovern.

After spending much of last season recovering from an injury, McGovern has stood out to Kelly as one of the biggest risers of spring practice.

Colin McGovern has had a great spring for us,” Kelly said. “He came in off of surgery. He was a little bit behind in fall camp, maybe lost his confidence a little bit. But he’s had a really good spring for us.”

Whether that means McGovern throws his hat in the ring at an open guard position remains to be seen. But after some up and down years along the offensive line, it’s clear that Hiestand’s influence on the position group has been one of the steadying factors.

For a coach that came to campus with no direct link to Kelly, and who had just left a Tennessee program with some up-and-down success at the position, it’s clear the Irish hit a home run with the veteran assistant. Kelly talked about what went into the decision to hire Hiestand, a move made necessary after Ed Warinner left the Irish for a similar job at Ohio State.

“What I knew about Harry was the way he taught and the way his players felt about him,” Kelly said. “For me, I’m a head coach that demands a mental toughness with his group across the board. When I evaluate my coaches, what I look for is how hard do they play, I think the measure of an assistant coach is how hard do the play.”

Almost immediately, Hiestand’s players loved him. Camaraderie has been at an all-time high, and Martin and Watt’s leadership has trickled down to this group. We saw last year that binding agent take hold, as an injury-ravaged line continued to fight hard against BYU and Stanford, right through to the Rutgers bowl win. And the experience Hanratty, Hegarty and Elmer gained last season will only push this group moving forward.

With another loaded recruiting class heading in this summer, Saturday’s Blue-Gold game will only be a snapshot of what’s to come this fall. But even after replacing two key starters, the line only looks to be getting better.

 

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

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.