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.
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.