Offensive tackle Tate Nichols' football career might be at its end because of continued injury problems.
In addition to starting guards Chris Watt and Mike Golic Jr., No. 1 right tackle Christian Lombard lined up at right guard in the early part of spring while 6-8 Tate Nichols worked at right tackle. Meanwhile, at 6-4, left tackle Zack Martin might be projected more as a guard in the NFL, although he has graded out as Notre Dame’s top lineman each of the past three years.
With Martin and Lombard returning in 2013, offensive tackle promises to be one of the stronger and most experienced position groups for the Fighting Irish. Building depth will be just as vital, especially with Nichols’ football career so uncertain.
The 6-8, 320-pound Nichols has never been able to take flight his first three years while battling knee and shoulder problems, including a PCL knee injury last fall that sidelined him the second half of the year.
According to Kelly, Nichols might have to go the same route that offensive lineman Brad Carrico and running back Cam Roberson did last season, with their football scholarships transferred to a basic university scholarship because of medical issues that precluded them from competing in the sport.
Whereas center Matt Hegarty appears to be on course to return in 2013 after undergoing Dec. 14 heart surgery after a Nov. 8 mini-stroke in practice, Kelly said he is not as confident about Nichols returning to action.
“We’re in conversation about that being a medical situation with Tate,” Kelly confirmed on Tuesday.
That leaves freshman Ronnie Stanley — who also missed the back portion of the season after reportedly undergoing elbow surgery — as the third scholarship tackle in the four recruiting classes from 2009-2012. How did the position become so threadbare?
• 2009 recruit Alex Bullard transferred to his home-state Tennessee Volunteers to be closer to his family after the death of his father, Louis, a former NFL lineman.
• 2010 USA Today first-team All-American Matt James tragically died in a spring break accident during his senior year.
• Florida State transfer Jordan Prestwood was with the Irish in 2011 but is now at his third school (Central Florida) in as many years.
• And now, Nichols’ football career appears to be in limbo after vying last spring for a starting position. Ideally, Lombard could have provided a little more size and bulk on the inside, but he was needed at tackle.
Fortunately, reinforcements are on the way because offensive tackles were a priority in the 2013-recruiting haul. The first to get a shot this spring will be early enrollee Steve Elmer (6-6, 315). Hunter Bivin (6-7, 290) at right tackle and Mike McGlinchey (6-9, 275) at left tackle will provide more aid come next August.
Zack Martin’s younger brother, Nick, was a stop-gap measure at tackle at the end of last season, but Kelly indicated the versatile Nick Martin will be needed to compete at the center position vacated by three-year starter Braxston Cave.
Likewise, Elmer’s future might be at guard, especially if Bivin and McGlinchey can develop in upcoming years. This spring, though, Elmer likely and instantly will be working with the second unit at tackle.
Tackle depth in 2013 will definitely need to be on guard.