If there was one thing made very clear leaving spring practice it was the state of the offensive line. After three years of restocking the depth chart, the Irish should be very good up front.
As mock draft prognosticators everywhere have pointed out all weekend, Brian Kelly did very well for himself by talking Ronnie Stanley into returning for his senior season. While we first reported that Stanley received only a second-round evaluation from the NFL’s advisory board, Stanley—at least 365 days before next season’s draft—is finding himself in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.
Setting that silliness aside (not Stanley’s draft ceiling, but rather the fact that we’re even having that conversation now), Stanley’s return turns a position of strength into a unit that could very well be dominant. With Nick Martin spending spring healthy and playing center, a mix of veterans and ascending youth creates a nice depth chart to make Harry Hiestand’s position group one that should be ready to dominate in the trenches.
Let’s get a look at the post-spring depth chart and check out some movers and shakers after a revealing spring practice.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr. (6-5.5, 318)
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.* (6-4.5, 325)
C: Nick Martin, GS (6-4.5, 301)
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr. (6-5.5, 315)
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.* (6-7.5, 310)
LT: Alex Bars, Soph* (6-6, 316)
or Hunter Bivin, Jr.* (6-5.5, 302)
LG: Alex Bars, Soph.* (6-6, 316)
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.* (6-2, 305)
RG: John Montelus, Jr.* (6-4, 310)
RT: Colin McGovern, Jr.* (6-4.5, 315)
OT: Mark Harrell, Sr.* (6-4, 306)
OG: Jimmy Byrne, Soph.* (6-4, 295)
C: Tristen Hoge, Fr. (6-4.5, 281)
*Denotes fifth year available
Ronnie Stanley: In his first spring practice at Notre Dame where he was fully healthy, Stanley took the strides forward expected of him. With a key 2015 season in front of him, Stanley is going to play next season with a bullseye on his chest—one that comes from evaluations like this:
Staying healthy and getting better were the keys to spring. That he showed some pretty impressive athleticism (and didn’t get hurt) on a screen pass during the Blue-Gold game were the perks. Now it’s time to see if Stanley can play to the level Zack Martin did, without the ability to fly under the radar of the player-evaluating media members.
Nick Martin: Perhaps we’ll see Martin at his best next season. Because after hearing Brian Kelly tell it, Martin played far from there last season, not just hampered by a hand injury, but still feeling the lingering effects from a serious knee injury suffered late in the 2013 season that robbed him of lower-body strength.
With Martin back at center, the Irish offensive line should be able to line up its five best players, led by the returning captain and Stanley. Getting healthy and stronger at the point of attack were key. Using his football IQ—and pairing it with the physicality necessary to be dominant—are necessary to have a top-flight center in his fifth season.
Mike McGlinchey: We’re looking at McGlinchey as a returning starter, not technically true considering McGlinchey only played in that role during garbage time against USC and getting his first start against LSU. But McGlinchey looks comfortable in the starting lineup, a position he nearly found himself in after spending last spring as the team’s right tackle.
But McGlinchey took a big step forward this spring, as the imposing right tackle will be a key to keeping everything together if the Irish are going to have the powerful ground game many expect. A natural athlete who has earned praise for his work on the practice field, McGlinchey gets his opportunity to show off on Saturdays this season, a key building block up front.
Steve Elmer: After struggling at tackle to start last season, Elmer slid back inside to guard after a rocky start, finding his footing on the interior, where he played as a freshman. It was one piece of a four-man shift, helping the Irish solidify their front five.
At his best, Elmer is dominant. At his worst? Well, the tape looked pretty bad. This spring was spent ironing out some technical mistakes, the type that come from moving around and being thrown to the wolves early.
A cerebral player who also has a tremendous physical skill set, Elmer enters his junior season poised to put it all together. That started to show itself this spring.
Quenton Nelson & Alex Bars: I’m pairing these two together because get ready to see them stuck together for the next few years. Nelson emerged as the starting left guard as practice wore on, though Kelly committed to getting Bars the snaps needed to advance his craft—either platooning with Nelson or somewhere else.
But after Ronnie Stanley moves to the NFL, expect these two to line up next to each other on the left side of the offensive line, with Bars playing tackle and Nelson mauling people from the guard spot. That Bars isn’t thrown in is a luxury that not many coaches have, and Kelly’s already called Bars one of the most natural talents he’s had in 20-plus years.
In all likelihood, Bars is the sixth man on this offensive line, capable of coming in at tackle, even if Hunter Bivin is listed as the No. 2 behind Stanley. So after a redshirt year for both talented youngsters, these two represent the future of the Irish offensive line. And we’ll get to see them compete come September.
Colin McGovern: Last year, I got the feeling that McGovern was making his move—a versatile lineman capable of stepping in if needed. But watching Nelson and Bars jump past McGovern, and hearing other names come out of Brian Kelly’s mouth, it’ll be interesting to see where McGovern fits into the puzzle this season.
He’s likely the next offensive tackle off the bench behind Bars, and if injuries pile up he’ll have a chance to be in the thick of it. But in a critical spring where the depth chart is showing its strength—offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he has ten offensive linemen he feels can contribute, Kelly tabbed seven of eight—McGovern is likely in that group, but near the bottom.
That’s not the spring I expected from him, but he’s still likely capable of helping Notre Dame win.
Sam Mustipher: If we’re looking at the last two seasons, we’ve seen plenty of movement at center, with Martin’s injuries and Matt Hegarty’s surprising departure. Enter Mustipher, who’ll serve (or is listed as) the team’s second-string center. That’s a big responsibility for a convert to the position, really only seen at the position these 15 practices.
There were a few shaky snaps this spring game, including one roller, that have some worried about Mustipher. But with Tristen Hoge likely redshirting this year before getting into the battle for a starting job, Mustipher is the guy who gets the first call—and this spring didn’t necessarily convince anybody that he was ready to do it.
Hunter Bivin: This might not be fair because we only saw limited reps, but count me among the skeptics that Bivin is ready to be on the field as a left tackle. Once a promising recruit, Bivin has jumped around the offensive line trying to find a proper fit, but backing up Ronnie Stanley doesn’t look like the best one for him.
Entering his junior season, it’s way too early to cast Bivin off. And his struggles getting on the field speak more to the strength of those ahead of him than to anything he’s not doing.
But against a far from elite set of defensive ends in the Blue-Gold game, Bivin struggled protecting off the edge. That puts the onus on Stanley to stay healthy and Bars ready to compete, because through my eyes, Bivin still needs some work before he can hold his own at left tackle.
Mark Harrell: One of the veterans along the offensive line, Harrell spent last Blue-Gold game at center, a few wayward snaps getting him noticed for the wrong reasons. Entering his fourth season in South Bend, Harrell spent this spring buried on the depth chart, a long road between him and the field.
Originally targeted by Ohio State coach Ed Warinner when he was in South Bend, it’s hard seeing where Harrell fits into the puzzle in 2015. But he’s got the type of versatility, not to mention experience in the system, to be an interesting test case up front. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t look possible for him to see the field unless injuries strike or the Irish are winning comfortably.