There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.
You name it, the Irish have it. Experience, with every projected starter from the Music City Bowl returning. Elite talent, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley turning down an opportunity to be a first rounder and returning to South Bend.
After watching Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand collect talented recruiting classes over the past four cycles, we’ll get our chance to see what is likely the top offensive line of the Kelly era next season. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the depth chart and what needs to be accomplished this spring.
OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Nick Martin, Grad Student
C: Matt Hegarty, Grad Student
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*
LT: Alex Bars, Soph.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
or Jimmy Byrne, Soph*
C: Mark Harrell, Sr.*
or Tristen Hoge, Fr.
RG: Colin McGovern, Jr.*
or John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Huter Bivin, Jr.*
*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.
While the depth at tackle is still probably a little bit below optimal, Kelly’s willingness to allow blue-chipper Jerry Tillery start as a defensive lineman instead of on offense gives you an idea as to his comfort level.
With over a dozen scholarship players to look at, let’s take a rapid fire look at the depth chart.
Ronnie Stanley: Learn how to be a dominant player and a position-group leader. While Nick Martin wore the ‘C’ on his jersey last season, it’s going to be Stanley who’ll morph into the leader of the offensive line if things go according to plan.
Kelly has talked openly about his belief that it’s critical for a team to have its best players be its best leaders. We saw the last two seasons when that wasn’t the case.
If Stanley turns himself into a captain candidate–and we heard hints of that happening before the Music City Bowl–then the rest will take care of itself.
(I’m assuming a full offseason in the weight room and another year of work will turn Stanley into one of the premier performers in the country and likely an All-American.)
Nick Martin: After a somewhat trying and disappointing season by Martin, the grad student needs to turn himself into a top-level interior offensive lineman. Whether that’s at center or guard remains to be seen.
Martin had a hand injury that hampered his ability to snap last year, playing most of the year at less than 100 percent. Combine that with the ascent of young talent like Quenton Nelson and Martin may shift inside. Either way, he’ll be a starter in 2015, and another good leader on a roster filled with them.
Matt Hegarty: If you’re looking for hints as to how Kelly and Hiestand plan to go next year, you’d think that Hegarty’s role on the offensive line will lead you in that direction. Then again, maybe not.
Last year, Hegarty played center during spring, serving as a fill-in as Martin recovered from knee surgery. But after committing late to a starting five (or at least their positions), it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly and Hiestand prefer Hegarty over young talent.
It wasn’t all great last season for Hegarty, but he’s a very solid player who will only be better in 2015.
Steve Elmer: He’s a guard.
That’s probably the biggest takeaway from last year, when Elmer’s struggles getting comfortable on the edge required Christian Lombard to move back outside and Elmer to return to the interior spot he played more than capably as a freshman.
Elmer has the size of a tackle and if all things were equal most probably preferred him making it as a bookend. But as we’ve seen recently in the NFL draft (hello, Zack Martin), a good lineman is coveted wherever he plays, inside or out.
Mike McGlinchey: You have to feel optimistic about McGlinchey’s play considering he was thrown into the fire against USC’s All-World Leonard Williams and then took on LSU in his first start. And McGlinchey thrived under the circumstances.
He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s long been one of Kelly’s favorite prospects. Entering his third season in the program and his first as a projected full-time starter, it’s time for McGlinchey to prove his coach right, as Alex Bars will be breathing down his neck.
Alex Bars: In a perfect world, Bars is Stanley’s understudy, watching a technician at the position and taking mental reps before earning his spot in the starting lineup. But football is rarely perfect, so Bars will need to be ready at both tackle spots, sooner than later.
Many raised an eyebrow when Kelly said in December that Bars was among the best young linemen he’s seen in his 25 years. There’s no reason to think that he won’t come gunning for a job, whether it be McGlinchey’s or anybody else on the offensive line.
Quenton Nelson: When Kelly pointed to Nelson working on the interior, it put a bullseye on the guard position that Martin and Hegarty shared last year. Depending on how the coaching staff viewed the production of that duo, Nelson will get a shot to jump the line and earn some playing time.
Big, strong and (presumably) nasty, Nelson is still a very young football player. But after many wondered if he’d even be redshirted in 2014, you should expect the New Jersey native to try to make up for lost time this spring.
Jimmy Bryne: When you talk about promising young offensive linemen, Bryne’s name often gets lost in the shuffle. But while it’s natural to make assumptions about players we don’t know, until we see Bryne given a chance to earn his keep, we have no idea if he’ll be capable of making a move.
That move this spring might just be into the second-string, with Bryne playing some tackle during bowl prep. And if there are health issues with Hunter Bivin, Bryne could see plenty of time with the second unit this spring.
Mark Harrell: We saw during the spring game some of Harrell’s struggles shotgun snapping. The senior hasn’t ascended into the starting line as some expected when he signed, but he’ll likely be practicing for an opportunity to stick around for a fifth year.
It’s hard to say anything negative about Harrell’s play, consider we’ve seen very little of it. But with freshman Tristen Hoge a natural center and participating this spring, Harrell might need to showcase some flexibility if he’s going to earn any playing time.
Tristen Hoge: Welcome to college football, kid. He won’t be starting his career against Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt, but Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will teach Hoge a few things.
Earning time on this offensive line won’t be easy, but Hoge is getting an extra semester in a race for the starting center job in 2016. Bulking up and learning behind Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will be a good learning experience.
Colin McGovern: If you’re looking for a really good football player who is flying under the radar, McGovern is my candidate. While he’s been challenged by some injuries and a depth chart that doesn’t seem to have an opening, McGovern could have some flexibility, playing inside or out.
The time might not come in 2015, but McGovern needs to get into the mix for playing time as the Irish will likely be replacing three starters after this season.
John Montelus: After starting his college career as a very large body, Montelus has worked his way into shape. Now he needs to find the playing field.
We’ll get a status report as to how close Montelus is come March 18. He’s another intriguing piece that Harry Hiestand has collected.
Hunter Bivin: Sitting out some bowl prep for LSU, what to expect from Hunter Bivin is anyone’s guess. Is he a center? A tackle? Is he healthy?
Bivin’s been in the program, so he’s no longer just another blue-chip recruit. But until we know that he’s healthy and what position he’ll be playing, it’s hard to understand how he’ll fit into the plans.