Irish O-Line Tries To Build Depth

Assembling the starting unit along the offensive line has been fairly simple for second-year Notre Dame assistant Harry Hiestand. Much more of a work in progress is building the second five.

2013 Notre Dame Spring Football: Harry Hie...

The heart of Notre Dame’s line — and perhaps the entire offense — is the left side with fifth-year seniors Zack Martin at tackle and Chris Watt at guard. The 2012 team’s bread-and-butter running plays often were most productive on that side with 2013 All-America candidate Martin (39 career starts) and Watt (26 career starts) helping the Irish to a rushing average of 189.4 yards per game, the program’s highest since 2000.

Because filling the center position vacated by the graduated Braxston Cave was the foremost priority along the front this spring, there was an iota of thought given to possibly shifting Watt to center. That way, the potential new guards would have experience next to them at center and also at the two tackle slots with Martin and right tackle Christian Lombard, who started all 13 games last year.

However, breaking up the Martin-Watt tandem is anathema to Hiestand — especially because juniors Nick Martin (younger brother of Zack) and Matt Hegarty are “on schedule” in their development at center.

“I don’t know why you’d want to do that,” Hiestand said of breaking up the left side. “Chris and Zack have a tremendous chemistry together … if we felt like Chris was our next best center and that we’d be a better team with him at center, then we’d do it. But Nick and Matt are making good progress to where we’re not feeling like, ‘Geez, we’re really struggling at that position.’ If we were really struggling at that position, it might be a consideration.”

The younger Martin, in particular, has been establishing himself as a fine technician with an exceptional knowledge of assignments. Having lined up at guard and tackle his first two seasons has facilitated his mental and big-picture acumen.

“Nick’s a very even-keeled person,” Hiestand said. “He doesn’t get rattled and when things are a little bit off he doesn’t panic. He’s got a good, steady demeanor, and that’s important for a center because he’s obviously got to start each play. If he’s seeing everything, or panicking, or a little bit out of sorts and the ball’s bad, then we’ve got a problem. His calmness and his ability to focus under duress and do the job have been very impressive.”

Hegarty’s story is well known. After suffering a mini-stroke in the Nov. 8 practice last fall, his football career was in limbo. Heart surgery on Dec. 14 went off without a hitch and he has been medically cleared to participate this spring. Hegarty is understandably physically behind in some areas, but Hiestand has been astounded by his approach, even though the Irish assistant admitted he too originally had some doubts about him continuing football.

“A lot of people would have hung up their gear, but he never even thought about it,” Hiestand said. “When you’re around him and you see his attitude about it and a smile on his face and the determination on his face, you kind of shake it off and say, ‘Okay, let’s get to work.’ The way he’s handled it and his approach to things is just outstanding.

“In the first five days he was okay and struggled a little bit with the snaps, but today [the April 3 practice] he was much better. Right before we broke for Easter, he had showed improvement. We’re anticipating him to keep climbing.”

The third junior in the group is No. 1 right guard Conor Hanratty, replacing the graduated Mike Golic Jr.

“He really plays hard,” Hiestand said of the 6-5, 309-pound Hanratty. “You really enjoy the passion that he puts into it. I think that’s what I like best about what he’s doing right now. He just gives everything he’s got on every snap. He’s been getting more snaps than anybody in spring because of our depth issue.”

Ah, yes, the depth. Last December, the Irish had Hanratty as the top backup at both guard positions and Nick Martin the top reserve at both tackle slots. Freshman tackle Ronnie Stanley had elbow surgery, Hegarty his own health issue, and current senior guard Bruce Heggie, favoring his right leg, did not practice this Wednesday.

The Irish signed five offensive linemen this February, with 6-6, 317-pound early enrollee Steve Elmer currently apprenticing behind Lombard at right tackle. Elmer is trying to learn the basics, while Stanley is not yet able to take contact work, although he did partake in the tempo drills early in Wednesday’s practice.

“He’s been lifting … we’re just going to kind of gradually work him in,” Hiestand said of the 6-6, 318-pound Stanley, who is behind Zack Martin at left tackle.

If Stanley proves to be the fifth-best offensive lineman to complement Lombard, Watt and the two Martins, then Lombard could be moved to right guard while Stanley would be at right tackle. That’s not in the works right now, Hiestand noted.

“We’ll have a better feel for that in training camp [in August],” he said. “Right now with Ronnie not practicing and Steve so young, [Lombard is] clearly the tackle. … He’s getting some reps at guard so Hanratty doesn’t implode from reps.”

Also helping Hanratty at right guard has been sophomore Mark Harrell, who is the third center, if needed. Replacing Heggie as the No. 2 left guard, if Hanratty doesn’t have to do it, is walk-on Dan Furlong, who is listed at 6-4, 243 pounds.

For the overall offense to function better in practices, it’s important to have the more veteran line crew take the lion’s share of snaps to avoid potential breakdowns.

“Steve’s really not ready to take more snaps, so you’re kind of limited on who can take the extra snaps,” Hiestand said of the dilemma this spring at tackle. “He’s swimming enough as it is.”

Fortunately, the knowledge base that Elmer develops this spring will be an asset come August.

“He’s very intelligent,” Hiestand said. “He’s a tremendous athlete and really willing. It’s not scary. We’re fortunate that we have a guy of his ability playing here.”

Overall, the starting unit is ahead of last spring’s pace when the first-year assistant Hiestand introduced a little heavier emphasis of zone blocking over gap blocking to a unit with a brand new right side and a center (Cave) who was unable to participate while recovering from a 2011 injury.

“The adjustments we’re making fundamentally are way less than what we were doing this time last year,” Hiestand said. “They have a better understanding of it and a better ability to do it. We should be able to tie those pieces together a little better than last year.”

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