This article is a part of our 2012 Player Projections series. During the summer months Blue & Gold Illustrated will be evaluating each player on Notre Dame’s projected two-deep depth chart — reviewing their careers to this point and discussing expectations for the year to come.
Injuries have kept Notre Dame's largest lineman, junior Tate Nichols, on the sideline so far.
Offensive Line Reserves
Nick Martin – OG (6-foot-4, 285 pounds)
Conor Hanratty – OG (6-foot-5, 305 pounds)
Jordan Prestwood – OT (6-foot-5, 284 pounds)
Tate Nichols – OT (6-foot-8, 320 pounds)
Combined Experience: None
Notre Dame’s offensive line is arguably the deepest unit on the team this season. Not only do the Irish have eight or nine linemen capable of holding down a starting job, but they also have the versatility in that group to comfortably fill the two-deep lineup on a weekly basis.
The Irish coaching staff said they would take advantage of that flexibility to make sure they had their top five linemen on the field to start the season. Experience reigned supreme at the end of spring practice when Mike Golic, Jr. (27 appearances, 4 starts) and Christian Lombard (13 appearances) joined the team’s three returning full-time starters to form the first unit. The four players they beat out — junior Tate Nichols and sophomores Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty and Jordan Prestwood — have yet to see the field on a Saturday.
Most of that quartet, though, has the potential to earn their first playing time in 2012. Martin, who worked at both tackle and guard, battled with Golic for the right guard spot and has not been officially ruled out from the starting job at this point. He made a good first impression on new line coach Harry Hiestand, but didn’t have the same grasp of the playbook as some of the veterans.
“When he goes the right way he does a good job,” Hiestand said midway through spring ball. “He’s working hard. He’s similar to his brother [left tackle Zack Martin], very determined, very focused, comes in with a great attitude. He’s got a smile on his face and he likes football. He enjoys the contact. He enjoys the straining and the sweating and the toughness.”
Nichols (6-foot-8, 320 pounds) is the most physically imposing player on the offensive line. Injuries last season set his career trajectory behind Lombard, his classmate. He still has the tools to become a good player for the Irish and is likely next in line for either tackle spot. Prestwood and Hanratty won’t take time away from returning starters Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side of the line, but they are solid backups and could see some action to get ready for the future.
The Irish have been very lucky during this current group’s career. Only three linemen have missed games with an injury since 2009. Last year, Braxston Cave’s season-ending foot surgery was the only thing that kept Notre Dame from starting the same front five in all 13 games. That won’t happen on a regular basis.
Hiestand spent March and April discovering which of his linemen could play where and developing ways to keep his best five available players on the field at all times. That means their will plenty of scenarios for these four to find themselves in the lineup during the fall. Just like with the skill position players this season, the more positions each knows, the better his shot at playing becomes.
Most, if not all, of this second line will likely be called on at some point during the year. If they are well prepared any of them have the potential to play their way into a starting position if given a chance.
What’s a Good Season?
It’s amazing how consistently a player’s perspective about game speed and what it takes to play changes after his first time in a game. Experience is crucial along the offensive line and can’t be simulated during practice or while standing 20 yards away on the sideline. It’s important this season that this group gets a taste of what’s to come.
The Irish will likely lose three projected starters at the end of 2012. Fifth-year seniors Cave and Golic are out of eligibility. Zack Martin still has a year left, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he opted to test NFL waters after getting his degree in the spring. If the Irish can find ways to break in their replacements throughout the year, the offense will be in good shape to transition to its next group of linemen in 2013.