Right side of offensive line still in flux

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The local media had their first look at the ’13 Irish today, with Brian Kelly spending a solid chunk of time answering question from a group of reporters that were hungry after sitting out Camp Shiloh. With practice open to peering eyes, one place to keep a focus on is the right side of the offensive line, where Conor Hanratty, Ronnie Stanley and Christian Lombard all battle for playing time.

With Hanratty out with a minor neck strain today, Stanley stepping in at right tackle while Lombard kicked inside to guard all but confirmed a long assumed plan if Stanley was among the top five lineman for the Irish. But Kelly was quick to remind people that we’re less than a week into training camp, with plenty of evaluation to be done before Notre Dame lines up against Temple.

“That’s a fluid situation. We’re only four days into it,” Kelly said today after practice. “We’re a work in progress over there. It’s going to be one of those three guys, whatever that assortment may be. Lombard at guard and Stanley at tackle. Or Hanratty at guard and Lombard-Stanley at tackle.”

One thing that seems certain, is the left side of the offensive line. Kelly spoke openly about his fifth-year combination of Zack Martin and Chris Watt. If it’s possible for a Notre Dame player to be flying under the national radar, the Irish might have two guys that Kelly thinks are doing it.

“Zack (Martin) is the best offensive tackle in the country in my estimation,” Kelly said. “He’s the best offensive tackle because his athletic ability, his strength, his understanding of the position, what he does for his team, the way he teaches and leads.”

Kelly also raved about Watt’s ability to dominate a football game. The fifth-year guard who has showed remarkable durability during his time in South Bend gets it done in a different way.

“Chris is a different player,” Kelly said. “Chris is a much more straight line, physical, knock-you-in-the mouth kind of player. Zack can play that style. If you watched him against Alabama he played that way, but he can be a guy out in space and screens. They’re a great complements to each other. More than anything else they’re just really, really good football players. They’re two of the best offensive linemen in the country.”

Last season, opposing defenses knew that the Irish running game was severely left-handed with Martin and Watt a much better option that running behind two new starters in Mike Golic and Lombard. But there’s a belief this year that the offensive line will be even better and more balanced, hopefully allowing the ground game to flourish running both ways — something that’d allow Watt to become a dangerous pulling guard.

With Nick Martin anchoring the group as an athletic center, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believe the trio of Hanratty, Lombard and Stanley — however it shakes out — should be able to do more than just hold their own.

Offensive line play key to victory

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There are more than a few Irish fans with sweat beads collecting as they think about reserve center Mike Golic, battling a physically impressive set of Seminole defensive tackles, led by true freshman Timmy Jernigan. Subbing in for injured senior Braxston Cave, Golic has held his own at the point of attack, but the offensive line — once the strength of the offense — saw its play slip in the closing month of the season, and the unit was overwhelmed for much of the first half against Stanford, when the Cardinal front seven shut down the Irish offense. But if a veteran like Golic, a fourth year player battling a talented freshman has you worried, you haven’t taken a look at what the Seminoles are running out there.

Put quite simply, it’s been one of those years for the Seminoles, who have been decimated by injuries on the offensive line. While Cave’s injury has been the only setback for Ed Warinner‘s troops, Florida State might be started four freshman along the front line, a challenge for any offense, even if Jimbo Fisher and the Seminoles coaching staff has had a month to work with the youngers.

“I’ve never been through injuries like we’ve been through this year,” Fisher said. “But in the end, it gave a lot of young guys time to develop and play. Hopefully we’ll play well in the game.”

Senior Zebrie Sanders will man the left tackle position, finishing an All-ACC career with a successful transition to the blind side after starting much of his first three seasons at right tackle. After that, it’ll be a youth movement for the Seminoles, with freshmen left guard Josue Matias, center Austin Barron, right guard Tre’ Jackson and right tackle Bobby Hart all being thrown into the fire. At this time last year, all four were just wrapping up high school careers. Now they’ll be tasked with blocking Ethan Johnson, Louis Nix, Sean Cwynar, Aaron Lynch, and Stephon Tuitt. It’s a match-up that should skew heavily in the Irish’s favor on paper. But physically, Fisher says the group looks the part.

“They’re doing well. You saw us when we were doing good on good,” Fisher said. “I mean their size. You’re talking about Matias at 325, Tre’ at 325, Barron at 300, Bobby Hart at 310, 315. That size and girth makes a big difference. I’m very pleased with their progress and what they’re doing.”

It’s hard enough to judge offensive line play by watching television broadcasts, but from a recruiting perspective, Hart was the highest profile player of the group, with the St. Thomas Aquinas product rated among the top 100 players in the country. His high school teammate at the Fort Lauderdale powerhouse, Barron is stepping in at center over sophomore starter Bryan Stork, where he’s started two games. Jackson had offers from Alabama and Georgia, while Matias was one of the top players in New Jersey last year with offers from North Carolina, Florida, and Wisconsin.

Even though the Seminoles won six of their last seven games, they never truly got their offense rolling, putting up more than 400 yards only once in that stretch. With the Irish defense one of the stingier units this group has faced this year, it’ll be up to the Seminoles offensive line, green as it may be, to win the battle at the line of scrimmage if Florida State wants to move the ball effectively.

Sure, Irish fans have a right to be worried about how the Irish front five will handle a Seminoles defensive line among the best in the country. But the feeling will likely be mutual.