While most eyes are focused on the battle at quarterback between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, the preparations for LSU will also be critical along the offensive line. The extra practices will give Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand time to evaluate their starting five, with changes that could have both short and long-term impacts.
At right tackle, Christian Lombard will be playing in his final collegiate game. But only if he can beat out sophomore Mike McGlinchey, who replaced Lombard during the second quarter against USC.
“That’s a competitive situation,” Kelly said of the battle at tackle. “Mike is getting a lot of reps at that position. We like the things that he did against USC.”
But that battle at tackle is just the beginning of an evaluation that could bring a radical reboot to the offensive line come spring. The play along the front five was erratic in 2014, struggling at times to protect Golson and necessitating a shuffle of four starters in midseason.
While the Irish stuck with the same starting five until Kelly finally pulled Lombard against the Trojans, it sounds like things will be opened up during these extra bowl practices, with aims at entering spring with a better feel for the personnel.
“It’s a little bit different in terms of years past,” Kelly said. “We’ve evaluated a ton of defensive personnel. This is more about utilizing some offensive personnel, evaluating a lot of offensive linemen.
Notre Dame has recruited extremely well along the offensive line the past few cycles, replenishing a depth chart that got way too thin towards the tail end of 2012. But as some former blue-chip recruits transition deeper into their collegiate careers, it’s time to kick the tires on what they can actually do.
So bowl practice has been a concentrated look at the future, with the second-string given a rare chance to take center stage.
That means a look at Alex Bars at left tackle, a position that could be thrown into flux if Ronnie Stanley decides to head to the NFL. Bars is the type of athlete that this staff believes can handle the job, though presumably much better after a 2015 season with Stanley earning his way into a Top 10 draft pick. Also spending the majority of his time at tackle is Hunter Bivin, who has bounced inside and out before looking to have found his home at tackle.
After making some noise during fall camp, Quenton Nelson has moved inside to guard. At a position that’ll likely welcome back both starters, Nelson will make for some interesting competition, as it’s tough to believe that Kelly or Hiestand believe they got the best out of the interior of this offensive line.
Colin McGovern is another option at guard, while John Montelus is spending bowl season practicing at center, another position that demands a closer look. Whether that means Nick Martin moves back inside or Matt Hegarty holds onto the job will likely be determined this spring.
The fifth-year decisions will be an interesting look at how the Irish staff decides to move forward. Does a program player like Conor Hanratty return for a final season as a back-up on the interior, or does that job go to someone like McGovern? At tackle, things seem locked in with McGlinchey and Stanley, but that could be blown apart if the NFL becomes too tantalizing for Stanley.
The Irish scrapped their spring plans heading into fall camp this season, and seemed to be playing catch up almost from the start. Credit Kelly — who was undefeated at the time of the move — for bumping Elmer back inside after he started the season at right tackle, the move that demoted McGlinchey to sixth man.
Losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt (both NFL starters) wasn’t expected to be easy. But while 2014 felt stuck in transition, the Irish have one more big test to fortify the position against a very good LSU defense.
It’ll also serve as the bridge to 2015, a jumpstart to one of the most competitive position groups on the roster.