Listed below are the jersey numbers, the heights and weights from last season (winter gains or losses have not yet been released by Notre Dame), class year and years of eligibility.
Senior Zack Martin begins his third season as the starting left tackle.
52 Braxston Cave, (6-3, 303), 5th/1
66 Chris Watt (6-3, 310), Sr./2
57 Mike Golic Jr. (6-3, 295), 5th/1
51 Bruce Heggie (6-5, 280), Jr./3
56 Brad Carrico (6-5, 290), So./4
65 Conor Hanratty (6-4, 315), So./4
77 Matt Hegarty (6-4, 291), So./4
72 Nick Martin (6-4, 280), So./4
Zack Martin (26), Cave (23), Watt (13), Golic (3)
The left side of the line remains intact with two-year starter Zack Martin at tackle and Watt, who edged out fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss for the role last year, at guard.
Cave started the first 23 games of the Brian Kelly era before incurring a season-ending injury early in last year’s Wake Forest contest. As a result, Golic, who can moonlight at guard, filled in for the final three games.
A good bet to step into the starting lineup is junior right tackle Christian Lombard, the first to commit in the 2010 recruiting class and a USA Today first-team All-American as a high school senior. He was basically considered the “third tackle” behind Martin and Dever last season but has yet to see meaningful action. He was deemed versatile enough by 2010-11 Irish offensive line coach Ed Warinner (now at Ohio State) to play guard if needed, but his apprenticeship has been at tackle.
Right guard is the unknown, and it comes down to this question: “Who are the fourth and fifth best offensive linemen on the team after the trio of Zack Martin, Cave and Watt?”
The first time Notre Dame’s offense lines up this spring, we could see Golic Jr. at right guard and Lombard at right tackle. But there are many other scenarios that could play out, including how healthy Cave is this spring.
• What if sophomore Nick Martin, whose footwork has impressed Kelly, is shifted from left tackle behind his older brother (where he was listed all of last year) to right guard? Like Zack, he could conceivably go from red-shirt freshman to starter in a matter of months. He consistently seemed to receive the highest reviews among the five freshmen offensive linemen last season.
• If either the massive Nichols, who was slowed by a leg injury early last fall, or Prestwood have a strong spring, could one of them slip into the lineup and maybe even downshift Lombard to guard?
• Do you move Watt over to right guard, and let a younger player learn the ropes at left guard in between the veteran tandem of Zack Martin at left tackle and Cave at center? Or do you not mess with that continuity?
Many times during spring drills an offensive line can be like Rubik’s Cube when it comes to mixing and matching the right pieces to create the best possible lineup and chemistry.
As mentioned, Nick Martin might be the most ready among the youngsters to play, but classmate Conor Hanratty is the most physically advanced with his frame, and he could be a dark horse at right guard.
In fact, Hanratty was listed behind Robinson as the No. 2 right guard last year, but the reality was that if Robinson had been injured the graduated Nuss or Golic Jr. would have been next in line so that a year of eligibility could be preserved for Hanratty.
If the offensive tackle position falls a little short with bodies or has some injuries, we believe sophomore-to-be nose guard Tony Springmann has an ideal frame to move there. Just some food for thought while looking at the depth chart.
It will be essential that sophomore Matt Hegarty, or someone else, develop at center because fifth-year seniors Cave and Golic Jr. are out of eligibility after this season.
Most of the pieces should remain in place for 2013 — the year most are projecting the Irish to make a bona fide BCS run. Zack Martin and Watt both have fifth seasons that year, Lombard likely will have some experience under his belt, and the current sophomores should start hitting their stride as juniors.
However, developing a center (or two) will be crucial to help bring it all together. It would also help if Cave could put in a full spring this year under a new line coach.
Since 2007, Notre Dame has recruited 17 offensive linemen, and the only one who wasn’t red-shirted as a freshman was Trevor Robinson in 2008.
The Irish signed only two this past season: tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Mark Harrell. Both will need a lot more work in the weight room before they are primed to play at this level, so the urgency of the current freshman class to accelerate its progress is more pronounced.
Harry Hiestand is Notre Dame’s fourth offensive line coach in five years, succeeding John Latina (2005-08), Frank Verducci (2009) and Warinner (2010-11). That means fifth-year seniors Cave and Golic Jr. will have had four different instructors, while seniors Martin and Watt are at three.
Like Latina, Hiestand is from the coaching tree of Joe Moore, the venerated offensive line coach for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame from 1988-96. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, the now 53-year-old Hiestand — whose brother-in-law is current Super Bowl champion New York Giants offensive line coach Pat Flaherty — had a few other stops. From 2005-09 he was the offensive line coach for the Chicago Bears, which was highlighted by a 2006 trip to the Super Bowl, and the past two years he was in SEC country at the University of Tennessee.
At Notre Dame, Hiestand will have to assimilate into Kelly’s spread offense, although Kelly did note there might be more of a zone blocking influence in the offense this year as opposed to emphasizing just big gaps and pulling. To Hiestand, adjustments are not a problem as long as the sacrosanct fundamentals of which Moore preached are in place.
“Offenses, they cycle through in college,” Hiestand said. “The formations and the tempo with which Coach Kelly goes at, that is very high everywhere I’ve coached. We’ve had elements of that in our system. We’ve gone up-tempo, we’ve spread people out with our formations — but what it comes down to is …
“Blocking is blocking. The five offensive linemen aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to line up in the same spot. Everybody else is going to be lining up in different places. That will never change. Our ability to get leverage, our ability to come off and be physical and hit people and understand leverages as it goes with the running game and pass protection, is the same.”
Kelly listed the offensive line’s progress as the most pleasant surprise in his first season back in 2010, and all things considered, including minimal mobility at quarterback, the pass-blocking was pretty darn impressive the past couple of years. The offense averaged 413 yards per game in 2011, and its 160.4 yards rushing per game was the best output in 10 seasons.
However, the Irish also suffered at the point of attack without Cave and power back Jonas Gray in the lineup late in the season — and they must demonstrate that they can produce more consistently against the marquee opponents.
Notre Dame closed the season last year with just 16 points against Boston College (no TDs in the last three quarters), 14 at Stanford (with a window dressing touchdown with 23 seconds left in the 28-14 loss) and seven in the 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State (the other seven coming on a fumble return by the defense).
The high volume of turnovers (29 in 2011 to rank 110th out of 120 teams) isn’t necessarily on the offensive line, but the overall inconsistency, especially late in the year, falls on everyone.