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Finding Five: Shuffling offensive line pieces still possible

Apr 10, 2014, 4:57 PM EDT

USA Today Sports USA Today Sports

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.


  1. viktory2013 - Apr 10, 2014 at 5:24 PM

    Not at all concerned about the front line. Behemoths opening holes for a quick, aggressive backfield. Last year’s didn’t perform that well where they’re irreplaceable. This year I have a feeling they will be agile, mobile, and hostile.

  2. martyhealy - Apr 10, 2014 at 5:39 PM

    Notre Dame has been called Tight End U by many over the years. It would be fabulous if both Zach and Watt are drafted high. Certainly Martin is considered a mid 1st to a mid 2nd. Watt is considered a mid round choice. If HS kids see that going to ND as an offensive lineman and coached up by Hiestand is a plus, all the pieces fall together. HS QB’s and RB’s want to come here for the blocking group ND has out front. WR’s want to come here because of the QB’s and the OL out there.

    I love the way Kelly has recruited the OL as priority one the last two years. Stanford/Alabama/Wisconsin has been a great source for OL guys last few years. Hopefully ND can dig into that a bit.and gain a reputation as the place to go to get your best chance at playing on Sundays.

  3. irishdog80 - Apr 10, 2014 at 8:25 PM

    One of my favorite games of the 2012 season was when we road graded the big mouths of Miami into oblivion in the second half in Chicago. I would like to see a few more of that type of performance this year and I think I will.

    Go Irish! Beat Rice!

  4. shaunodame - Apr 10, 2014 at 10:27 PM

    These are certainly champaign problems, but if I have one concern along this offensive line it’s at the LT position. I think we’ve all become a little spoiled the past few years with Zack Martin being an absolute stalwart at that position. Not only was he a top-notch player but the guy never missed a game!

    Ronnie Stanley has all the potential in the world but he really struggled in the run game last year. Don’t believe me? Check the tape. Stanley got beat on the hard inside rush time after time. Stanford and Michigan State were especially bad. However, he was as solid as anyone in pass protection. Being a LT is just going to make things even harder for him. Who knows maybe he worked real hard on it this offseason and will be solid in both situations this fall. It’s really not a HUGE concern (yet) though, but like I said, champagne problems.

    • keelio19 - Apr 11, 2014 at 7:58 AM

      I think we can all agree it’s going to be tough to fill Zack Martins shoes, I can almost guarantee the Zack Martin we knew the last two years, was not the same Zack Martin in his first two years at Notre Dame. Don’t believe me? Check the tape. You have to give Stanley some credit, of course he was getting beat on the hard inside rush against the Stanford’s and MSU’s of the world, but what defensive coordinator wouldn’t attack that side of the line when like you said we had Zack Martin on the other side. So the defense was bull rushing with their best defensive players, while we were attempting to block them with our 3rd and 4th best offensive linemen, no wonder that said ‘tape’ shows him struggling.

      I trust Hiestand will put our best option at the LT position, and to be honest, I’m not sure why we’re only talking about the LT, the RT position will be just as important for the times Zaire comes into the game. I have absolutely no insight on left handed and right handed QB’s flipping in and out of games (as I expect at some point we’ll be doing) and what that may do to an oline, but to me that would be more of a concern then Stanley at the LT position.

      Any offensive linemen out there that have any experience with this?

      • keelio19 - Apr 11, 2014 at 8:11 AM

        One other thing to think about when we start looking at “tape” from last season, we had TR behind center last year. If you don’t remember, the defense stacked the box on basically every play making things extremely difficult for the olinemen, but you probably saw that when you ‘checked the tape’. Lucky for us the defenses have another thing coming if they think they can do that with Golson and Zaire under center, which I think will definitely make things easier on the oline then it did last season.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Apr 11, 2014 at 10:37 AM

        that’s a good point.

        having an agile QB is usually mentioned as a benefit to the rushing game (preventing LB(s) and safeties from loading the box), but the impact of QB mobility on the efficacy of the pass rush shouldn’t be forgotten. when a DT/DE can start a bull rush and know the QB is still going to be in the same spot 3 seconds later, well that makes the pass rush quantums easier than having to rush, maintain a lane/gap and also watch the QB all at once.

        I can only imagine a right tackle plays with much more confidence when the QB behind him can effectively step up in the pocket, get outside or put a move on a DE/DT to evade the pressure. all that being said, taking sacks isn’t a main concern of mine this year.

      • martyhealy - Apr 11, 2014 at 11:51 AM

        I agree especially to those of 4 Horse Man rides again. The defensive rush should be in a freeze mode knowing a QB can scramble, run, make a quick release pass, etc.

        I know Golson has all those attributes, I hope Zaire proves as good or better. I somehow feel that Golson was never given the opportunity to strut his stuff. I think Kelly has been too cautious
        with respect to turnovers, and had Golson throwing to the out of bounds or five yards past a receiver on a DEEP.

        I hope Kelly gives the KEYS to Golson and tells him that he is the BOSS now.

        Could be a great fun year if the offensive line is as effective as they were last year under Tommie.

      • shaunodame - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:22 PM

        1. I hope “check the tape” can become a sort of catchphrase around here haha

        2. Fellas, you guys kind of got of topic. I was talking about Stanley struggling vs the RUN not the PASS. All this talk of a Tommy vs Zaire is good and all but it’s not the point.

        3. That point about the RT with Zaire in the game is a really good one. McGlinchey will suddenly become the “blindside” guy, so he’s def a player to watch in PASS protection when Zaire is in the game.

      • irishdog80 - Apr 11, 2014 at 2:40 PM

        With the zone option read play in the playbook, DEs will be less likely to do bull rushes. Once a DE or DTfor that matter shows the tendency, all you have to do is run at him and let Golson/Zaire make the read. The DE/DT takes himself out of the play.

    • viktory2013 - Apr 11, 2014 at 12:54 PM

      With Golson and Zaire in the backfield, the defenses have to have a completely different mindset. Last year they stacked the box in normal situations and basically hamstrung any running game, while in passing situations they could have dropped 9 men into coverage without worrying about Rees taking off (sometimes it felt as though they did just that). Not so this year boys and girls.

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