Rumors swirl about offensive line shuffle

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Over the weekend, Brian Kelly talked candidly about finding a better performance from his offensive line. With talented personnel that’s still finding its identity after Zack Martin and Chris Watt graduated, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have an off week to find the five optimal starters — and their positions — before taking on Syracuse next weekend.

That’s led to quite a bit of conversation on the interwebs as to what the exact best starting five might be. While Ronnie Stanley slid to left tackle after Martin’s departure, his first three games at left tackle are a good reminder as to just how excellent Martin was on the blind side. That’s not to say that Stanley has been bad, but he’s been noticed, something Martin rarely was, as he erased an opponents defensive end.

The interior of the Irish offensive line was supposed to be the strength of it. But even with a veteran group of Christian Lombard, Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty filling the guard and center spots, Kelly openly acknowledged that he’s looking for a better push from the interior.

Of course, Steve Elmer‘s play at right tackle has been widely discussed. His struggles against Purdue highlighted the general feeling that the line has underperformed through three games, with the Irish giving up four sacks as the running game was stuck in neutral against the Boilermakers. Elmer played solid football last season at guard as a true freshman. He looked at home there in the spring as well, when he took the majority of reps at left guard, the first option to fill Watt’s shoes.

Over the weekend, Kelly all but closed the door on starting opportunities for anybody but this fivesome, though he opened the door to giving Mike McGlinchey, who spent all spring as the starter at right tackle, the opportunity to win a job. So that erases talented freshmen Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars from the mix (saving their redshirts) and spring surprise Colin McGovern from the interior.

So with another week until they need to field a starting five, here’s essentially what Kelly and Hiestand are working with:

Ronnie Stanley, LT (Job Secure)
Conor Hanratty/Matt Hegarty, LG (Veterans with experience)
Nick Martin, C (Team Captain, certain starter)
Christian Lombard, RG (Most experienced, rock solid when healthy)
Steve Elmer, RT (Great potential, struggling with position change)

All of this goes a long way towards establishing a fairly credible rumor, seemingly started by none other than Irish fan and university benefactor Tom Mendoza. Posting on Twitter (from London of all places), Mendoza dropped this theory out there.

The moves all make sense. Many have forgotten, but it was Lombard who served as the starting right tackle during the Irish’s 2012 BCS title game run, a first-year starter doing a fine job as both a pass and run blocker. He may be smaller than you’d like at right tackle, but as a fifth-year player, he’s likely strong enough to do a capable job.

That move would push Elmer back inside, where he’ll almost immediately play better in the trenches. At nearly 6-6 and 315 pounds, strength and athleticism won’t be a problem for the sophomore, who is still expected to be a great player for the Irish now and in the future.

Speaking of that future, the move also could set up nicely for the 2015 and 2016 squads. Elmer playing guard would open up a tackle logjam for not just McGlinchey, but for the duo of Bars and Nelson, both guys with really high ceilings.

The move of Hegarty to center would seemingly come out of left field, but it makes sense. It could improve both the guard and center play, if Martin’s a better guard than Hanratty or Hegarty, too. For as good as many expected Martin to be after returning from injury, he hasn’t been the dominant interior blocker that you might have expected from a senior captain. Add to that fact that Hegarty played some solid football at center for a first-time contributor towards the end of 2013, so maybe he’s more comfortable snapping the football than playing next to the center.

We saw what the Irish offensive line would look like with Hegarty at center on Media Day, where the senior took a majority of reps in practice. The move could turn Hanratty into the key reserve on the inside behind Elmer and Martin, with Martin capable of moving back to center if Hegarty suffers an injury. It also keeps McGlinchey as the key backup at both tackle positions, though that’s still an area of concern if anything happens beyond one injury.

(You get dizzy thinking about the combinations that arise if Lombard gets hurt again. Would Elmer shift back to tackle? Or would McGlinchey go in, and the guards stay the same? Who is truly the sixth best offensive lineman on the roster?)

Of course, none of this has been confirmed by the Irish coaching staff. In fact, they might not even be on campus to see these practices, as just about everyone is out on the road visiting key recruits — including Hiestand, who Tom Loy of BlueandGold.com confirmed is visiting Jerry Tillery this week.

So for now, this is a bye week rumor, that’ll likely only be updated next Tuesday when Kelly gets together with the media to discuss Syracuse. But it’s certainly great fodder, and super fun to chop up and discuss.