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Irish Spring: Offensive Line

Scholarship Players
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.

No. Tackles
70 Zack Martin (6-4, 303), Sr./2
74 Christian Lombard (6-5, 301), Jr./3
64 Tate Nichols (6-8, 320), Jr./3
79 Jordan Prestwood (6-5, 287), So./4

No. Guards/Centers
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

Career Starts
Zack Martin (26), Cave (23), Watt (13), Golic (3)

Projected Starters/Frontrunner
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.

The right side, where guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Taylor Dever started the past two seasons, needs to be rebuilt.

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.

Challengers
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.

X-Factor
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.

Vital Stat
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.

Top Storyline
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.”

Summary
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.

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    Irish legend CMC Quote Master and Director of Football Related Discussions 5 Time POTW & 2 Time WPOTW Winner Joined 09/17/05

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    Irish legend CMC Quote Master and Director of Football Related Discussions 5 Time POTW & 2 Time WPOTW Winner Joined 09/17/05

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  • Lou - Your observation that "...at the point of attack without Cave AND power back Jonas Gray..." ND suffered is 'spot-on'. When it's 3rd & 2 CAN they just line up AND get it done? I'm old school, not that I'm anti spread or option play etc, but if the opposing Ds BELIEVE that ND has a legit 'power game' on crucial 3rd downs everything else becomes more potent. I'm hoping that Cam R/Malone can fill that rb roll because I think ND will have a pretty darn good OL. Just my opinion - GO IRISH!!

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  • Great article except for the zone blocking reference. Guys pull at Stanford and USC and they crush people. Screw zone blocking and I don't want to hear that pros do it, pulling is better in college.

  • jirish1,

    The program underperformed in each of Brian Kelly's first two seasons, and I don't think any objective Notre Dame follower would disagree. This third year is going to have to be about demonstrating for the first time that you can do more than what is projected.

    In other words, my guess is that Vegas will have ND around 7-8 wins. Therefore, I think a minimum of 9 wins during the regular season will at least serve as a barometer that the regime has some potential — provided they also win the bowl. The other option is a 10-2 regular season which gets them into a BCS bowl. That would mean — Lord have mercy — the Irish would actually 1) win the games they're supposed to and 2) maybe even one or two they're not expected to.

    You absolutely need to be going into that fourth year with a realistic expectation that the program is now a bona fide BCS team. It's imperative this season that a QB is found to hang your hat on for the next few years, the progress on defense is not impeded by the questions in the secondary and that special teams become an overall asset, if not weapon.

    Unless he violates some morals clause in his contract or puts ND on probation, Brian Kelly will get his five years from Jack Swarbrick. The next three years will define where the program is going, just like the last three did for Charlie Weis after back-to-back BCS bids in his first two.

    Brady Hoke did an excellent job his first year, but other than Ara in 1964, it's usually not a good idea to base a coaching regime on year 1. I will say that it is imperative that ND beat Michigan at home this year. It will be ugly if the Irish don't.

    Many years ago, famed ND historian Francis Wallace outlined the "Seven Criteria for Judging a Coach."
    That's what I've always followed. Here are the first three:

    1. A football squad over a reasonable length of time, usually three years, invariably reflects the personality of its head coach.

    2. A new coach should not be judged severely on the results of his first season, be they good or bad; he is working with a squad that has been coached by his predecessor and it may still reflect the predecessor's personality and coaching ability.

    3. Usually a coach will begin to forecast the future in his second season. He can safely be judged by the results of his third year.

    Others delve into topics of the weaker the head coach, the stronger the assistants must be, his emotional health, etc.

    This isn't a "free pass" year for Kelly by any means. To really believe in him, I think he and the team have to produce more than what is expected to help begin to nullify the first two seasons.

  • I find it amusing when comparisons are made about Brady Hoke v. Brian Kelly on a board where two out of every three references to Notre Dame's quarterback are prefaced by the adjective, "Turnover". If it was possible to quantify the kind of difference a quarterback like Denard Robinson makes vs. Tommy Rees, what do you think those numbers would tell us? So, as Lou suggests, priority number one is to find a quarterback who has the potential to elevate a team's performance, as opposed to managing it, or worse. The secondary is clearly a question mark, but there are six scholarship athletes at the corners, none of whom were recruited as an afterthought, and all of whom have at least cut their teeth in practice and have familiarized themselves with the Irish defensive scheme. The odds suggest it might not be the enormous drop off that many fear, particularly if the ones who get on the field turn their heads when the ball is in the air. As for special teams, there were signs of life, at last, with the kick off returns, but the punt returns were beyond deplorable. ND spotted the opposition critical yardage in field position every game, and that's totally unacceptable. There will be athletes on this team with game-breaking potential. It's on the coaching staff to develop return schemes and refine the return skills to make this an overall asset.

    So, those are three critical areas on which the success of the 2012 season will hinge. Unfortunately, the first two will rely on the development of very young talent, at positions where experience is often a pre-requisite. That, and a challenging schedule, is why optimism for '12 is guarded, but there is every reason to think '13 might be the year we have all been waiting for.

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

  • If Hoke loses to Al--ND--OSU in 2012 and he and BK will be in the same boat if BK goes 8-4...The name of the boat is the Titanic ll....

    I will say it one more time since I live in Michigan and viewed most of the M games..they were just lucky all year and it started with the ND game...that BCS victory was due to a missed field goal by VT ...M was outplayed all game....this is not me but my M friends who have blue blood..Denard is a horrible passer...he just throws hail marys...

  • Agree with you BORGHI, Robinson throws hail mary's and they often are answered.

    This post was edited by irishm 2 years ago

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